Facebook, Clegg and politics

In pondering this odd move, after sheer wonderment comes cold hard reality
Nick Clegg (Image: Lib Dems)

12 November 2018

Paul Hearns

It came as something of a surprise when it was announced that Facebook had appointed Nick Clegg as global head of affairs and communications.

I say surprise, it might be better to say a shock, bombshell, bolt from the blue, etc.

Few in the world, let alone the industry, would have predicted this appointment, and on the face of it, there is little to indicate why he got he job.

However, if we scratch the surface, we get a little bit more about why this may be a fit, of sorts at least.

Firstly, Facebook is in trouble.

Despite having around 1.47 billion daily users on average in 2018, according to Statista, its demographic is changing dramatically.

The social network is no longer the preserve of the young, the dynamic and the tragically hip. Its popularity has been its own enemy, as the young depart the platform for other more exciting prospects, such as Snapchat, Instagram and others. No longer is it the place that young people go to as they are now more likely to encounter their mum there as they are others of a like mind and similar age.

This aging user base, coupled with a perception of being passed by with newer, shinier offerings has done nothing to help the blue F-marque.

And then there is the whole controversy thing. Well, actually there are quite a few controversies, so it is hard to know where to start.

“The fact that Facebook would hire a politico indicates it is finally coming to terms with its position as a political influencer, but where, ironically, much of that capability is beyond its conscious control”

There are the social issues, such as the effects of social media on children, from disrupted sleep patterns, to poor self-esteem and body image, there is the sexualisation of children — none of which, it must be said, can be blamed entirely on social media, or Facebook, but as the largest of such networks, and the most visible, it is the one that takes the most flak for them.

And then there are the other controversies — hate speech, harassment, stalking, bullying, catfishing, gaslighting and more. Facebook has always come under scrutiny when instances of any or all of the above are revealed, and rarely has it covered itself in glory in dealing with them. The recent exposé on how its teams are trained to deal with objectionable material was just one such instance where laudable efforts were lost in conflicting interests and the relentless drive for audience expansion.

If all this were not enough to be dealing with, then there is the whole political manipulation thing. And what a thing that is. False accounts, intelligence stealing, mass manipulation through disinformation and lying, Facebook has had a very hard time controlling the more nefarious efforts of state-sponsored actors to influence voters in various election races.

It has taken to documenting the numbers of accounts, posts and campaigns it has suspended or removed to try to deal with the fallout from previous scandals.

And into all this comes: former deputy prime minister of the UK, former Liberal Democrat leader, former member of the UK parliament, Nick Clegg.

Right. What?

All of the woes listed above must come in the context of the move towards tighter regulation of internet content and general privacy, in the form of US legislation around ‘net neutrality and European GDPR, both of which might have severe implications for the likes of Facebook.

To deal with such issues, someone with long experience dealing with the kinds of negotiations and negotiators involved would be necessary, someone who has political nous, long experience and is accustomed to the corridors of power where agreements, and more importantly compromises, are made.

The fact that Facebook would hire a politico indicates it is finally coming to terms with its position as a political influencer, but where, ironically, much of that capability is beyond its conscious control.

Facebook does not wish either the law or public demand to force it to tighten its policies for what goes online, but at the same time, it has been the victim of its platform being manipulated for nefarious purpose — to its great embarrassment.

To deal with all of these issues, a politico seems to make sense. A sharp, informed, incisive operator, attuned to power and accustomed to compromise makes all sorts of sense. But, given that description would Nick Clegg be the first on the list? I would have thought not.

The fact that the person taking the roll is British, not American, might be construed as indicating where the first issues to be tackled may lie. But even so, would an Alistair Campbell not have been a better choice?

While Clegg might have been seen initially as a great uniter, a facilitator, negotiating, as he did, the coalition between Liberal Democrats and David Cameron’s Conservatives, his reputation has been forever stained over the tuition fee scandal.

So while externally at least, he may be perceived as a sound person, politically, he might be seen as bit of a pushover when push comes to shove — and it will in Facebook.

The ruthlessness of Facebook has been demonstrated again recently, as the founders of its acquisitions WhatsApp and Oculus have decided to jump ship as they ultimately lose not just control but direction for their products.

In such cases, one cannot see how Clegg would be able to withstand the combined onslaught of a determined Zuckerberg and Sandberg, should the need — or a principle — arise.

It sounds more as if Facebook is getting more pragmatic, perhaps more realpolitik, in its approach. And in doing so, realises that it needs a calming influence, and acceptable face to deliver the message.

Clegg has already publicly denied that the roll in Facebook will be one of lobbyist. Going by various commentaries, that is something which few accept.

Current Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has already urged Clegg to stand up for liberalism and democracy at Facebook, while the journalist who was responsible for breaking the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Carole Cadwalladr, asked openly in the Guardian, “If you’re on the side of democracy, Nick Clegg, why are you going to work for Facebook?”

That is a tough question that only time can answer. In the meantime, Clegg and his family are off to southern California on what the UK Sun is calling a £1 million a year job.

Clegg himself has stated he is hoping to build bridges between politics and tech.

To hijack his metaphor, his job might not be so much about building bridges between politics and tech, but rather ensuring invasion forces do not make them bridgeheads.


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