On Sunday, Nick Clegg did a succession of interviews with a number of the US’s greatest TV information reveals. In his position as Fb’s vice-president for international affairs and communications, he was defending his firm after weeks of headlines about its newest disaster – this time involving Frances Haugen, a Fb staffer turned whistleblower who had testified days earlier earlier than a committee of the US Senate. The story centred on a stash of firm paperwork that Haugen had given to the Wall Avenue Journal. The central allegation, which Fb vehemently denies, was that the corporate had ignored its personal analysis into the harms brought on by a few of its merchandise in favour of the pursuit of “astronomical earnings”.
Anybody au fait with the 5 grim years Clegg spent because the UK’s deputy prime minister would have had the acquainted impression of somebody emphasising his good intentions in nearly unattainable circumstances. His facial features commonly expressed a form of righteous exasperation; his phrases appeared to suggest that if solely his critics may grasp the details, every little thing would shortly die down. Like every well-briefed politician, he emphasised a handful of statistics: the 40,000 content material moderators Fb employs, the $13bn (£9.5bn) it says it has spent cracking down on misinformation and hate speech; the corporate’s declare that the latter accounts for solely 5 of each 10,000 Fb posts.
“With a 3rd of the world’s inhabitants on our platforms, after all you’re going to see the nice, the dangerous and the ugly of human nature,” Clegg informed MSNBC’s Meet the Press. “Our job is to mitigate and scale back the dangerous and amplify the nice.” He as soon as mentioned very comparable issues about his social gathering’s method to going into political partnership with George Osborne and David Cameron.
After all, most individuals within the US know nothing of his historical past as a British politician: the transient burst of “Cleggmania” in 2010; his fate-sealing U-turn on college tuition charges; and what the time he spent in coalition with the Conservatives did to the Liberal Democrats. Within the US, Clegg is solely a really high-ranking Fb govt, given the job of dealing with an more and more hostile media within the absence of two extra essential gamers: Fb’s founder and chief govt, Mark Zuckerberg, and its longstanding chief working officer, Sheryl Sandberg.
“When he seems on these Sunday reveals, the query is: ‘Who’s he making an attempt to persuade?” says the American journalist and author Steven Levy, the creator of the definitive ebook Fb: The Inside Story. “Clearly, the people who find themselves critics of Fb aren’t going to be circled by him saying: ‘Most of what we do is sweet.’ That argument doesn’t get traction. However individuals who work at Fb want any individual getting in to defend the corporate, as a result of Mark and Sheryl have indicated, no less than at this second, that they don’t have a style for publicly defending the corporate they constructed.”
The from side to side between Fb and its detractors seems like precisely the form of polarised political battle the corporate is routinely accused of encouraging. Haugen says Fb knew that Instagram, which it has owned and run since 2012, had a unfavorable influence on the wellbeing of a big proportion of teenage ladies, however carried on downplaying its results. Instagram insists that her materials is “targeted on a restricted set of findings and casts them in a unfavorable mild”, whereas Fb maintains that correlation doesn’t show causation. In response to Haugen’s insistence that modifications to Fb’s Information Feed algorithm in 2018 amplified divisive content material and thereby contributed to political unrest, the corporate factors to a weblog Clegg wrote in March, together with strains resembling: “Fb’s methods will not be designed to reward provocative content material. Actually, key elements of these methods are designed to just do the other.”
Levy says: “Somebody is now presenting a case backed up with quite a lot of paperwork. Fb can fairly precisely say: ‘That’s only a number of paperwork – they’re being cherrypicked.’ However the bigger query is: ‘Is Fb going to shift the core of its angle?’ It most likely may stem the bleeding if the precise phrases got here out of Mark or Sheryl’s mouth. However what I’m listening to from inside the corporate is that they’ve had it with that. When Mark apologises, folks simply record all the opposite occasions he’s apologised. So, no less than for now, he’s brazening it out.”
Up to now, Zuckerberg has solely printed a Fb submit – which, amongst different factors, insists that the thought “that we prioritize revenue over security and well-being” is “simply not true”. Levy says: “Somebody’s acquired to talk for Fb. And it’s Nick Clegg. So my backside line is – and that is simply supposition – that this job isn’t as a lot enjoyable as he thought it was going to be.”
The story of how Clegg ended up at Fb begins with Britain’s 2015 normal election, when, after 5 years as deputy prime minister, he led the Liberal Democrats to a catastrophic defeat. It seemed like an existential disaster for the social gathering.
The Lib Dems misplaced 49 of their 57 seats within the Home of Commons, leaving them with solely eight MPs. Clegg was one among them, having held on to the constituency of Sheffield Hallam, a largely middle-class nook of town that nudges the Peak District. The 12 months after, Clegg – a one-time MEP who speaks English, French, Dutch, German and Spanish – reacted with horror to the results of the Brexit referendum. In 2017, he misplaced his seat to the Labour newcomer Jared O’Mara.
In the meantime, within the very totally different environs of Menlo Park, within the Bay Space of northern California, the world’s greatest social media firm had hit hassle. After the 2016 US election and the arrival within the White Home of Donald Trump, the corporate was the main focus of big questions on misinformation, polarisation and on-line political meddling perpetrated by Russia. Within the spring of 2018, Fb was hit by a scandal surrounding the political consulting agency Cambridge Analytica, which had harvested hundreds of thousands of Fb profiles of US voters. At across the similar time, outrage exploded about the position apparently performed by Fb within the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
The EU was making more and more loud noises in regards to the energy of so-called large tech – and its avoidance of taxes. When the then prime minister, Theresa Could, visited the World Financial Discussion board in Davos in January 2018, she acquired a lot of the solution to accusing the bosses of the massive social media corporations of standing by whereas their platforms had been used “to facilitate youngster abuse, trendy slavery or the spreading of terrorist and extremist content material”. For Fb, all this noise meant it needed to change its method to the insurance policies that ruled its content material, in addition to its public relations. It additionally needed to put together for a world wave of presidency regulation that was, ultimately, going to interrupt.
In the summertime of 2018, Fb’s then vice-president of communications and public coverage, Elliot Schrage (“a little bit of a Silicon Valley dinosaur,” in line with one tech insider), introduced that he was leaving the corporate. Sandberg and Zuckerberg shortly determined that his best alternative could be an skilled politician from Europe. They quickly satisfied a considerably reluctant Clegg to fly to California for a dialog with Zuckerberg and his spouse, Priscilla Chan. In Levy’s account, Clegg’s opening gambit was blunt: “Your basic drawback is that individuals suppose you’re too highly effective and also you don’t care.”
One essential human ingredient within the story of Clegg’s recruitment is Richard Allan, AKA Lord Allan of Hallam, the previous Liberal Democrat politician. Because of a type of coincidences that appear to tie collectively politics and enterprise, he had held Clegg’s former Westminster seat till 2005, earlier than becoming a member of Fb in 2009 and changing into its director of European coverage. He says he emphasised Clegg’s suitability for a senior position in conversations with Sandberg and Zuckerberg, and in addition inspired his outdated pal (they’ve recognized one another since about 1997) to take the job.
Allan, who left Fb in 2019 and spends a part of his working life creating electrical automobiles, says that being ejected from authorities left Clegg at a free finish. “He had just a little thinktank going and he wrote a ebook. However I believe he was at all times pondering: ‘I’d prefer to get my tooth into one thing.’ He was searching for a job the place you make large and essential selections that have an effect on lots of people.”
Clegg’s enchantment to Fb, he says, centred on one truth: that he would come to Silicon Valley as an outsider. “It was actually essential to have any individual who may say: ‘That factor you’re doing could look like a superb factor, however when folks in Europe hear about it, they’re going to suppose it’s horrible and slam you for it.’ Nick brings them that outsider’s voice. He’s not a tech utopian: ‘We simply construct this nice stuff and the world’s going to be pretty.’ Nick comes from a way more typical place for European politicians: they’re slightly sceptical about know-how.”
Clegg is reportedly paid £2.7m a 12 months and lives in a £7m home – full with a pool, “out of doors fire” and scorching tub – within the Atherton neighbourhood of San Francisco, usually reckoned to have the very best property costs within the US. His spouse, Miriam González Durántez, has talked about northern California as a paradise of second possibilities, saying: “Individuals reward failure right here in a manner we don’t. It’s so wholesome.”
Clegg was approached to be interviewed for this text, however Fb’s PR workforce mentioned collaborating in such protection was not his coverage. As an alternative, the corporate despatched a set of bullet factors for “background”, about why Clegg took the job and the way he sees the position.
That electronic mail emphasised Clegg’s work in organising the Fb oversight board, a bunch of 20 high-powered folks – together with attorneys, lecturers and Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of the Guardian – that hears instances in regards to the moderation of content material referred to it by Fb customers and makes binding, precedent-setting selections about them. (Apparently, the board has simply introduced that it intends to listen to testimony from Haugen.) The corporate’s spokesperson highlighted Clegg’s work at Fb across the 2020 US elections, when he “steered [the] company-wide response and public comms on election integrity” and led the choice to pause the operating of recent political promoting within the week main as much as the election.
This brings us to a different of Haugen’s allegations. She says that essential safeguards that had been put in place to suppress political misinformation and the potential of violence had been shortly eliminated as soon as voting had completed. “As quickly because the election was over, they turned them again off, or they modified the settings again to what they had been earlier than, to prioritise development over security,” she informed the CBS present affairs programme 60 Minutes. As she sees it, this alteration contributed to the riotous occasions in Washington DC on 6 January.
Just a little greater than every week in the past, Clegg appeared on the CNN programme Dependable Sources and denied – regardless of proof on the contrary – that exercise on Fb had been no less than partly accountable for what occurred in and across the Capitol constructing. Any such suggestion, he mentioned, was “ludicrous”. He went on: “The accountability for the violence of January 6 lies squarely with the individuals who inflicted the violence and those that inspired them, together with President Trump.”
Just a few moments earlier than, his interviewer had mentioned one thing that has been endlessly quoted since: “Part of me appears like I’m interviewing the pinnacle of a tobacco firm proper now.”
‘I really feel that, within the final two weeks, Nick Clegg’s standing has fallen, when it comes to being a reputable voice,” says Levy. “In a debating society, his arguments may need some traction, however given this case the place persons are seeing this very compelling determine and calling her a hero, to say that this statistic or that statistic presents an alternate viewpoint to what she’s saying – it’s not compelling. Individuals aren’t shopping for it.
“My impression of him is that he’s a super-smart man and he should know that the mission he’s despatched out on isn’t a fascinating one – not one the place he’s going to alter folks’s minds.”
Different voices are extra sanguine. David Fitzpatrick, the creator of The Fb Impact, an acclaimed 2010 ebook in regards to the firm, says he would have appreciated to see “a extra senior international chief” doing Clegg’s job; simply earlier than he was recruited, Kirkpatrick advised Fb may do its finest to rent Barack Obama. However he says Clegg deserves no less than certified reward. “I really feel he’s had a constructive impact. I’m crucial of him for not doing sufficient, and I believe his interviews not too long ago have been inadequate and really defensive, in a traditional Fb vogue. However he’s one of the best they’ve acquired, when it comes to having common sense about Fb’s relationship to the world. If he weren’t there, my robust suspicion is that it will be even worse.”
It feels as if Clegg is in an identical place to the one he endured between 2010 and 2015 – dealing with derision and hostility, however doggedly assuring anybody who will pay attention that issues will not be almost as dangerous as they suppose. The gargantuan wage and scorching tub should assist; so too the sense that, no matter he has to elucidate to the media, he has left Westminster behind and opened up a brand new chapter. “He’s in a tricky place,” says Levy. “However he’s going to come back out of this OK. I’m not apprehensive about Nick Clegg. How lengthy’s he been at Fb now? Three years. His worldwide profile and his profile inside are up. No matter occurs, the Fb expertise could have been good for him.”