He was brought in to salvage Facebook's reputation. Has Nick Clegg changed anything or is he just there to make Mark Zuckerberg look good? Josh Glancy reports.
In the summer of 2015, Nick Clegg joined his former cabinet colleague David Laws for a burger and a pint at the Duchy Arms in Kennington, south London. It was just after a general election that saw the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party reduced to the size of a water polo team. Clegg had lost his job as deputy prime minister and stepped down as party leader. His ministerial Jaguar was gone along with his security detail.
Laws, a longtime Clegg ally, had briefly been chief secretary to the Treasury before a scandal forced him to resign. The friends surveyed the end of the coalition and the wreckage of the Lib Dems. "He felt responsible for a lot of our losses," Laws recalled. "He was massively upset by the election defeat. He thought the country was taking a wrong turn."
As the two men nursed their ales Clegg received a call from the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, who wanted to pick his brain over a policy issue. It was a reminder that he still had some clout. But what would he do with it? The two men were unsure. "He felt that there were still challenging things for him to do," Laws says. By 2017, though, things had deteriorated further. Clegg's party was a husk, his beloved EU was drifting away and he'd lost his constituency seat of Sheffield Hallam to Jared O'Mara, a 35-year-old publican. It's no wonder Clegg now describes himself as a "political refugee": his entire professional world had gone up in flames.
That's when Mark Zuckerberg came calling. By 2018 Facebook, for so long the darling of political elites, was itself under a withering assault. Democrats in America were apoplectic with the social media giant for allowing fake news and disinformation to flourish on its platform, some of it planted by Russian cyber-operatives. Many also blamed the company for the presidency of Donald Trump. Some British liberals added Brexit to the charge sheet too. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, which exposed the misuse of user data for political ends, dealt a further blow. Facebook had gone from being the great connector to the selfish democracy killer.
For a long time Facebook had brashly shrugged off political criticism, adhering to the "move fast and break things" Silicon Valley ethic. But after the election, after Cambridge Analytica, even Zuckerberg realised that the company needed to change — or at least to look as though it was doing so. Such is Facebook's reach and power — some two billion users globally, owner of Instagram, WhatsApp and scores of other tech businesses, a valuation of up to $700 billion — it increasingly behaves like a political entity. "In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company," Zuckerberg once said. But to run like a government it needed a politician's help. By the autumn of 2018, Clegg was installed as the new vice-president of global affairs.
Charming, cosmopolitan and impeccably briefed, Clegg has rapidly become a big player at Facebook. He has been the driving force behind its oversight board, which recently decided to uphold Donald Trump's suspension from the platform. Trump was originally suspended in January, after he used the platform to encourage his supporters who were rioting at Capitol Hill. Dubbed "Facebook's supreme court", the board is an independent body of external advisers to whom the company can refer its key content moderation decisions. It has become Clegg's signature initiative and he advocated strongly for it to be given the pivotal Trump call.
At the time, some staff thought it was too risky to let an outside panel decide but Zuckerberg was convinced. He reportedly said, "I defer to you, Nick," according to a Facebook spokesman quoted in The New York Times.
The board announced this month that Facebook was right to ban the former president, but that the suspension should not have been "indefinite". Instead, they have given the tech giant six months to decide whether to make it permanent or set a timeline for reinstatement. Facebook has said that decision will also be led by Clegg.
Despite Clegg's pivotal role in this new and apparently more accountable direction, his critics argue that he is little more than a highly paid fig leaf, there to put a cuddly liberal face on Facebook's destructive greed. That, far from being a paragon of liberalism, he is just another hungry former politician looking for a payday. Are they right? Has the man who betrayed the Lib Dems over tuition fees sacrificed what remained of his principles for another sniff of power? Or is he doing what Nick Clegg does, being a pragmatist, reforming a powerful institution from the inside? Is he a sellout or a saviour? He wouldn't answer these questions (or any others) directly, instead pointing me in the direction of his friends and allies.
Publicly those friends and allies are supportive. "Nick's never shied away from controversy," says the TV producer Dame Pippa Harris, former chairwoman of Bafta and a friend since university. "I don't think he cares now that there's a big sector of people who think he's a complete sellout. He feels it's all very well shouting at Facebook on the sidelines but the only way to make a meaningful change is to go and work there."
Privately Clegg's reinvention as a tech dude gets mixed reviews. "Nick used to stand for something," says another friend from his Cambridge days. "He's sold his soul and once you've done that it doesn't matter how many baubles you've got. In the dark recesses of the night he must think, f***, I've got all this money but how did it come to this? How did I end up being Zuckerberg's shit-shoveller?"
Life in the valley certainly looks pleasant. Clegg's reported salary of £2.7 million ($5.2 million) is a far cry from the £80,000 ($157,000) or so he was earning as a backbench MP. Along with his wife, the lawyer Miriam González Durántez, and their three sons, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel, Clegg lives in a £7 million ($13.7 million) mansion in Atherton, near San Francisco, which is often described as America's "most expensive zip code". Their two-storey faux Queen Anne house has all the California plutocrat trimmings: an acre of land, a capacious swimming pool and hot tub, five bedrooms, six bathrooms and space for 16 at the dining room table. Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, lives close by. Weekends are full of hiking and cycling with the boys, but Clegg hasn't "drunk the Kool-Aid", says Harris. "I think there is a bit of homesickness."
In 2019 González Durántez told The Times that being in Silicon Valley was "a bit like living in the Vatican", criticising its male dominance and lack of diversity. On Instagram she pleaded for America to start importing "proper coffee" and expressed anguish at finding a Spanish omelette mixture being sold in a jar. "There should be an international convention forbidding treating tortillas like this," she wrote. She also observed that the weather in the Bay Area isn't exactly a consistent 22C and sunny, and the time difference to Europe is exhausting. "Having been up since 5am in conference calls, my life does not feel 'star quality' at all!" she posted.
"Miriam hates it out there," says the friend from Clegg's Cambridge days. "It's such a 'tech bro' culture. Nobody speaks to their Hispanic helps. There are lots of Filipino servants in white gloves serving champagne … it's like being on the set of Dynasty. Miriam cares about community and social glue. She feels massively atomised in this uber-rich world, where all the wives just run ego-fluffing foundations."
How did the Cleggs find themselves over there, amid the vipers and rattlesnakes of Silicon Valley? Clegg's hiring at Facebook was facilitated by his colleague and sometime mentor Richard Allan, Baron Allan of Hallam. Allan held what became Clegg's seat of Sheffield Hallam until the 2005 election. He joined Facebook in 2009 and became its vice-president of policy solutions in 2018. Allan and Clegg stayed close, so close in fact that when Clegg was crisscrossing Whitehall during the critical coalition negotiations in 2010, he would call Allan as he walked between meetings with David Cameron and Gordon Brown, describing the rival offers and asking for his advice on where to jump.
Facebook is dealing with increasingly strong political interference, whether in the form of the EU's General Data Protection Regulation or looming antitrust threats from Washington. "The two perspectives they [Facebook] really wanted were from someone European, and someone who could offer deep insights into what politicians think about what we're doing," Allan says. Naturally he proposed Clegg. "They thought about George Osborne for a bit too, but it was really all about Nick," a former Facebook executive says. "It was a really shrewd hire."
Clegg hasn't always been keen on Facebook. In his 2016 memoir, Politics Between the Extremes, published in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, he fretted about "self-selecting networks on Twitter and Facebook" that create "millions of online echo chambers". He also described himself as "immensely grateful" that Facebook and other social media weren't around to record the "misdemeanours" of his "wild twenties" (he famously told GQ magazine in 2008 that he had slept with "no more than 30" women).
In an Evening Standard column written in November 2016, Clegg wrote: "I'm not especially bedazzled by Facebook … I actually find the messianic Californian new-worldy-touchy-feely culture a little grating. Nor am I sure that companies such as Facebook really pay all the tax they could." Yet by 2018 he was on a plane to California. One person whose counsel he sought was Tony Blair, who encouraged him to take the offer.
"It was a relief when the Facebook job came up," Laws says. "It was a very big challenge in the public policy space, but in a different country. It got him out of the UK. "
Beyond the healthy salary, his new perch meant global leaders would still have a reason to call him. And it was a chance to raise his boys away from the glare of the British media.
After all, post-power careers can be a difficult business, as David Cameron has vividly demonstrated with the Greensill scandal. The temptation to monetise your influence and connections in ways that appear dubious can be irresistible. But how to keep yourself relevant in the highest echelons of global power without humiliating yourself? Facebook seemed like an elegant solution.
Outstripping his former coalition colleagues probably doesn't hurt either. "I suspect both Cameron and Osborne are rather jealous of him taking a role at one of the world's most important companies," Laws says. One former Downing Street adviser puts it more bluntly: "Cameron wants to play tennis with people, but no one has time to play tennis with him. Nick wanted a proper job."
Clegg was still keen to ensure he wouldn't just be a frontman at Facebook — he refused the first offer for the role and had to be coaxed back to the table by Sandberg. He was then flown to Silicon Valley and spent two hours in Zuckerberg's garden talking to the two most senior Facebook bosses. There was an "openness" from Zuckerberg, says Harris. "He told Nick, 'I really do want to listen to you and I understand the company needs to change.' "
Some at Facebook were nonplussed by the hire. "I thought it was a very strange choice when he was first announced," says Yael Eisenstat, a former CIA officer who joined Facebook in June 2018 to clear up its election advertising mess, but left months later claiming her work had been heavily impeded. "It was clear he was going to be a PR person. I remember thinking Facebook has serious, serious issues they need to address; hiring a big PR person shows me the direction they are going."
Today, every time there is a Facebook-related controversy you will usually find Clegg at the heart of things, patiently explaining the company's perspective. Those controversies come thick and fast.
A far from exhaustive list of current problems includes: Chinese adverts showing happy workers in the cotton fields of Xinjiang (where slave labour is common); a lawsuit filed by Reporters Without Borders in France accusing the company of "deceptive commercial practices" and allowing "hate speech to flourish"; the continuing fallout from Facebook's decision to block all news on its platform in Australia temporarily during a row over paying publishers for content; a San Francisco lawsuit accusing it of misleading customers by exaggerating its advertising reach; continuing allegations of the platform being used to incite violence in Myanmar; the alleged blocking of anti-Narendra Modi hashtags in India; and of course the oversight board's decision on Trump.
Clegg's role is a sprawling one, but in a company still heavily dominated by its founder, keeping Zuckerberg happy is a top priority. "He won Mark over very, very quickly," says the former Facebook executive. "He has really helped Mark stand up as a statesman more, you see that in the way he presents himself to Congress."
Pleasing Zuckerberg means more than just straightening his tie, though. In 2019 Zuckerberg's chief concern was with the competitive threat posed by TikTok, the Chinese-owned video app. The Facebook lobby went into action, with Zuckerberg lambasting Chinese-owned companies for the threat they pose to American business. He also reportedly raised the issue with Trump, whose administration tried to ban TikTok from the US the following year.
"The play against TikTok was partly a Nick-inspired thing," says the former Facebook executive. "That's the power of the Facebook lobby for you. They're merciless about protecting themselves."
In the Facebook office, amid the hoodies and sneakers, Clegg maintains the look of a British business chap. "It's quite weird seeing him around all the bearded men eating granola," Harris says. "But Nick is wearing his smart buttoned-up shirt and his chinos, like he's still in the coalition."
Colleagues are titillated by his Britishisms: Clegg's nickname in Zoom conferences is "wood for the trees", a favourite phrase. "All of us Americans are immensely charmed by him," says Molly Cutler, Facebook's vice-president of strategic response. "He's annoyingly good at everything."
Clegg has spearheaded several key changes at Facebook. During the 2020 US presidential election, when the company was being watched carefully by both sides, he argued successfully that Facebook should pause the sale of political adverts in the days before the election.
His most notable public contribution to the company so far has come in the form of the oversight board, which is composed of Clegg-appointed external heavyweights including the former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and the former editor of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger. Clegg didn't invent the oversight board, but he has positioned himself as its champion, viewing it as a neat liberal solution to Facebook amassing far too much power. "Accountability" is the preferred buzzword. "They realised that it wasn't sustainable that the last voice in content moderation was Mark Zuckerberg's," says Thorning-Schmidt, who chairs the oversight board. Clegg, she argues, knows this better than anyone. "You can't be a politician if you don't have that sense of accountability in your bones, which Nick does," she adds.
Yet while welcoming the oversight board as a step in the right direction, Facebook critics ultimately perceive it in much the same way they view Clegg's tenure: as a deceptive veneer of liberalism applied to protect Facebook's bottom line. They highlight the half-baked recent Trump decision as a case in point.
"It's window dressing, a massive PR stunt" says Damian Collins, a Tory MP who has long campaigned against Facebook overreach. Collins acknowledges that the company has made some decisions on content moderation that it would have resisted a few years ago. But he argues that when you look at how the oversight board actually works, the limitations are glaring. "It can't initiate investigation," he says. "It can only consider cases based on Facebook's own interpretation of its terms and conditions. And it can't make any inquiries about its algorithm or what content it shouldn't be recommending to users."
Collins adds: "Clegg has either joined the dark side or has no real influence at all. Where is the Liberal Democrat in all this? It looks to me like he's their spin doctor, a public spokesperson there to defend the indefensible things that Facebook does."
Content moderation is of course just one area in which Facebook has come under fire. It has also been slammed for its use of data, for its ferocious approach to buying up or crushing competition, for its tax payments and for the way its algorithm stokes division and rage by prioritising clickability over veracity. "Your business model itself has become the problem and the time for self-regulation is over," was the scathing assessment of Frank Pallone, a Democratic congressman, aimed at Zuckerberg during his latest congressional grilling.
Clegg and others at Facebook emphasise ad nauseam that hateful content isn't central to its business model, but critics such as Eisenstat say there isn't enough transparency to know whether this is true or not. She was particularly incensed by a recent blog post of Clegg's, titled "It Takes Two to Tango", in which he compared a user's relationship to the Facebook algorithm as being similar to someone going to the supermarket to buy food that their partner then cooks for dinner. "This implies that the relationship is somehow symmetrical," Eisenstat says, "as opposed to one of these people having an unbelievable amount of power and using that to curate how you view information. To manipulate you. Nick Clegg is a wonderful PR person but he has not addressed any of the core issues."
Eisenstat points to the riots on Capitol Hill on January 6 to make his point. "Has Facebook taken any responsibility for how militia groups and extremists organised on its platform, after years of a steady diet of intentional misinformation and disinformation, ignoring numerous organisations pointing out all of the groups and pages that were violating Facebook's own policy, to plan an insurrection against the US government? Somehow Nick Clegg forgot that in his grand defence of Facebook."
Eisenstat is far from alone in her analysis: at this point the drumbeat of Clegg criticism is almost constant. Earlier this year Vince Cable, his former Lib Dem colleague, stuck the knife in. "He will no doubt make a lot of money," the former business secretary told Times Radio. "But he will have to live with the issues around conscience working for a questionable company."
Does any of this bother Clegg? In his heart of hearts, does he truly believe in his mission at Facebook?
"When you've had your face burnt in effigy outside your office window and decided to carry on [as happened to Clegg during the coalition], you can live with some people being snarky about you on Twitter," says the former Downing Street adviser, who compared him to Wolverine from the X-Men, someone who can take absolutely any knock.
"I wouldn't work for Facebook but it's his thing, isn't it? Go into an organisation that's doing something bad and make it a little bit better. That's what we did for five years in government, and we were good at it. He'll probably go and fix the Saudis next."
Others are less convinced. "There must be a bit of him who knows it stinks," says the friend from his Cambridge days. "What happened to the person he was supposed to be?"
Written by: Josh Glancy
© The Times of London