How Nick Clegg helped steer Facebook’s decision on Trump

Former British deputy PM has played a key role at an important moment for US free speech

Facebook’s  head of global policy and communication, and former British deputy prime minister  Sir Nick Clegg on a visit to Dublin in April 2019. Photograph:  Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Facebook’s head of global policy and communication, and former British deputy prime minister Sir Nick Clegg on a visit to Dublin in April 2019. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

 

When Facebook barred President Donald Trump from its service in January, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, defended the decision in a Facebook post the morning after the siege of the Capitol. But the first draft was written the night before by Nick Clegg, a former British deputy prime minister who leads the company’s public affairs.

More than a week later, Clegg urged Zuckerberg to let a new outside panel decide whether to let Trump back on Facebook, employees involved in the deliberations said. Handing over control of one of the most consequential free-speech decisions of the internet age was risky advice, and some in the company wondered if Zuckerberg would agree.

“I defer to you, Nick,” Zuckerberg said, according to Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for Facebook who was at the meeting.

On Wednesday the panel, the Facebook Oversight Board, upheld the decision to suspend Trump’s account, preventing him from posting to Facebook or Instagram. But the board said Facebook had made a mistake imposing an “indefinite” ban, and it called on the company to revisit the ban within six months, to either make it permanent or set a timeline for reinstatement.

Clegg played perhaps the biggest behind-the-scenes role in decisions around Trump’s account, colleagues said, an unlikely position for a British political veteran in such an important moment for American free speech. He developed the main justification used by Zuckerberg for barring Trump, and he oversaw the creation of the board, including the selection of its members.

The board’s ruling on Trump tests the argument that Clegg championed inside Facebook: Instead of taking all the responsibility for moderation, the company should enlist a quasi-judicial board of outside experts to make the final decision.

Global arbiter of speech

Many have questioned Facebook’s effort to create a global arbiter of speech, including some company employees, arguing in part that it lacks legitimacy because the board is Facebook-funded and stacked with hand-selected representatives.

But Clegg has said that absent rules from governments, Facebook had few good options other than creating a state-like institution of its own.

Clegg (54) declined to comment for this article. But Facebook made executives available to discuss his role at the company, many on the condition that their names not be published.

Clegg also connected the New York Times with several people outside Facebook to speak favourably of him. The Times also spoke with members of the oversight board, academics, political figures, civil society groups and others familiar with Clegg’s work.

Then Lib Dems leader Nick Clegg and prime minister David Cameron in 2015. Photograph: Samir Hussein/WireImage
Then Lib Dems leader Nick Clegg and prime minister David Cameron in 2015. Photograph: Samir Hussein/WireImage

Clegg joined Facebook in 2018 to oversee its policy and public relations team after his political star had faded. The leader of the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, he was voted out of office in 2017 after alienating supporters by joining Britain’s Conservative Party in forming a coalition government. After Britain increased college tuition, cut-outs of Clegg were hanged in effigy by protesters in London.

Facebook wanted Clegg to help repair its relationships with regulators, political leaders and the media after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when data improperly pulled from Facebook was used by to create voter profiles. Clegg’s international experience and comfort in five languages – English, Spanish, French, German and Dutch – appealed to the American-centric company.

Friends said Clegg had initially been reluctant to join Facebook, one of the world’s most polarising corporations. But he wanted to be back at the centre of important political and policy debates. In a memo outlining how he envisioned the role, he argued that it was unsustainable for a private company like Facebook, rather than democratically elected governments, to have so much power, especially on speech-related issues.

“My advice was strongly to go for it,” said Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, whom Clegg spoke with before taking the job, “because you’re going to be part of one of the most powerful companies in the world at a moment of enormous change in the world, and when technology is at the heart of that change.”

Zuckerberg counsel

Inside Facebook, where Zuckerberg leans on a group of friends and early employees for counsel, Clegg earned the trust of his new boss. At the company’s headquarters, where proximity to Zuckerberg is power, Clegg’s desk was placed nearby. He orchestrated a trip through Europe with Zuckerberg, meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels and President Emmanuel Macron of France in Paris.

Since Clegg’s arrival, Facebook has shifted some of its policy positions. It now appears more accepting of regulation and higher taxes. He overcame reluctance from Zuckerberg and others in the company to ban political ads in the weeks before the US election last year. And he was the main internal supporter for recently announced product changes that give users more control over what posts they see in their Facebook feeds.

“He has a track record of knowing what it’s like to work inside a cabinet that needs to make decisions quickly and move at the speed of a country, or in this case a platform,” said Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, who worked with Clegg on the user-control changes.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: Leans on a group of friends and early employees for counsel. Photograph: Eric Thayer/The New York Times
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: Leans on a group of friends and early employees for counsel. Photograph: Eric Thayer/The New York Times

Critics say Clegg’s role is an attempt by Facebook to use a respected global political figure to soften its image. Despite pledges to accept new government regulation, the company continues to fight strong oversight, policymakers said. Others said changes made by Clegg did not address core problems with the company’s privacy-invading business model, which is optimised to keep people scrolling their Facebook feeds, amplifying divisive and inflammatory content and exaggerating political divisions in society.

“‘Are you sure you’re on the right side here?’ That is the question that will get thrown back at Clegg,” said Damian Collins, a Conservative member of the British parliament who led an investigation of social media in politics. “He’s taken a lot of money to go work for a company that doesn’t meet the highest ethical standards.”

Oversight board

Nowhere has Clegg’s influence been felt more than in the creation of the oversight board, an idea that had been kicked around internally but gained momentum after he joined. In September 2019, Clegg introduced Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a former prime minister of Denmark, to Zuckerberg to recruit her as a co-chair of the oversight board. The two former politicians had been friends for decades after meeting during graduate school at the College of Europe in Belgium.

Clegg also took steps to protect the board from criticism. After a parallel organisation, the Real Facebook Oversight Board, was created by a group that wanted to raise alarms about the company’s ad-driven business model, an aide to Clegg contacted Martin Tisné, managing director of a London foundation funding the group, asking the critics, unsuccessfully, to back off.

“Accountability is a good thing, and they need to have their feet held to the fire,” Tisné said.

After the January 6th attack on the US Capitol, Clegg argued to indefinitely suspend Trump’s account because, he said, the president’s posts constituted an incitement of violence in violation of the company’s policies, and then suggested sending the decision to the oversight board for a ruling.

Critics said the referral to the board was a dodge, allowing Facebook to avoid responsibility for a critical free-speech question. But Clegg said the Trump decision would give the board credibility with the public, even if it led to criticism, because it could demonstrate the board’s independence.

“People would prefer we’re not making those decisions,” Clegg told colleagues, according to Bounds, the Facebook spokesman.

Criticism

On Wednesday, the board’s decision frustrated some critics, who said it showed a level of bureaucracy that the former politician had brought to the company.

“We did not need a ruling from an illegitimate Facebook board to understand that the corporation was not prepared to address governmental abuse of its platform,” said Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who researches social media.

Clegg had hoped Wednesday’s judgment would be the final word on Trump’s ban. Instead, the oversight board said Facebook must find a permanent solution on its own, effectively kicking a final decision back to Facebook’s executives. The person who Facebook said would lead that decision-making process? Clegg. – New York Times

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