The Brit Trying to Fix Facebook’s Global Image

Clegg wasn’t a figure in Silicon Valley, or even particularly well-known in Washington, but the fact that he was out of nowhere—or, at least, from London—had its own appeal. He would be seen as a fresh figure in the company’s story, and personally didn’t harbor the resentments many in Facebook had accumulated during the company’s slide from darling to villain. (“What’s his name again? Aaron?” he says, when recounting the Sorkin episode.) He hadn’t even been in the country during the 2016 U.S. election debacle. “He didn’t have the stench of that shit on him,” one former Facebook employee says. And here was someone with gravitas, someone who had a long résumé of sitting down with world leaders—even if sitting on the opposite, industry side of the table now would sometimes be “bizarre,” as he describes a 2019 Paris meeting with heads of state: “Theresa May used to work for me.”

Clegg’s idea was to suggest—no, insist—that Facebook start telling its side of things. And rather than keep Zuckerberg outside the fray, as some kind of young Silicon Valley wizard, he thought the company’s most prominent figure should be the one to do it. “I think it remains absolutely right that as the founder, the owner, the CEO, and the chair, he gets out there and explains his side of the story.”

“One of the things I constantly say to folk ’round here is, ‘Don’t go whingeing about the fact that people criticize Facebook.’ People who have been here from the beginning are, ‘Oh my gosh, isn’t it awful?’” Clegg says. “I don’t mind that. I mean, I come from a world where everyone criticizes all the time.” He goes on. “We really have very heavy duties to explain ourselves to the outside world.”

Clegg’s own arc to becoming a global player in some way followed Facebook’s: It was unlikely and impossibly exciting until it all started to go wrong. A former member of the European Parliament—Clegg is half Dutch and, as anyone who knows him will tell you within 15 seconds of mentioning his name, speaks five languages—in 2007 he took over as leader of the Liberal Democrat party, then the U.K.’s third-largest political party, a centrist alternative to Conservatives and Labour.

Coming off a well-regarded 2010 performance in the U.K.’s first-ever televised prime ministerial debate, Clegg almost immediately became hugely popular. “Cleggmania spreads across Britain” read the headline in British newspaper The Independent. Clegg represented a new kind of politics: hopeful, humane, urbane and authentic. He helped win his party its highest-ever share of the vote, and a governing coalition with conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. Then it collapsed: Clegg and his party got blamed for misleading the country on school fees, a criticism that blossomed into the notion that Clegg had helped grease the country’s path toward Brexit.

The furor got him tossed from British politics in 2017 (“Probably in my heart I’d still like to be British prime minister, but the British people had different ideas about that,” he says with a big laugh) and available when Facebook came looking.

“One of the things he understands is, if you don’t tell your story, others will tell it for you,” says Richard Allan, a political ally of Clegg’s who represented the same constituency in Parliament and who preceded Clegg at Facebook, as Facebook’s onetime European policy lead.

Clegg was worldly, a diplomat, and, winningly, neither a Republican nor a Democrat, either label a bit of a burden in Trump’s Washington. His political party had tailored its message to educated middle-grounders; exactly what it stood for was appealingly difficult to pin down. “It was kind of obvious that he had the profile and skills that they needed,” Allan says.

Facebookers generally weren’t sure what to make of Clegg in the early going. Some in the liberal-leaning company got their backs up over the fact that he wasn’t a Democrat, and thus failed to diversify a policy leadership, especially in its Washington, D.C., office, that was noticeably Republican. (Some close to the company say that the prevalence of Republicans in Facebook’s D.C. operation is an attempt to balance out the liberal tilt of the California mothership, one justified at least in part by the idea that Sandberg—herself a former Clinton administration official—can handle the necessary outreach to Democrats.)

Clegg’s first year and a half in the job has been a quest to answer whether he is, in fact, what Facebook needed. At the very least, he’s succeeded in having an impact.

Zuckerberg, not the most graceful of public speakers in the best of times, has begun to put himself extraordinarily out there to address crises head-on. Last fall, the crisis was Facebook’s: In October, he gave a speech, under intense scrutiny, in a packed hall at Georgetown University detailing Facebook’s near-absolute commitment to free expression, rooting it in the United States’ civil rights movement. Clegg went over drafts with Zuckerberg, helping him work through this case.

“Obviously I provided as much support and advice as he wanted, but he’s nothing if not hands-on, Mark Zuckerberg,” says Clegg, careful to keep credit in his boss’ hands. The CEO, however, had never done anything like it pre-Clegg. That same month, Zuckerberg testified in the House of Representatives to defend Facebook’s much-derided plan to launch a virtual currency called Libra. The questioning was harsh, but Zuckerberg parried energetically. The tech press took notice of a shift in Zuckerberg’s public persona. “The man is, shall we say, uncharacteristically fired up,” noted Vanity Fair’s tech blog.

Zuckerberg, who in the past had picked and chosen his media appearances, has since briefed reporters on everything from election preparations to coronavirus response. It’s no longer a surprise to have the CEO, worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $75 billion, turn up on the other end of a routine briefing call, as he did in mid-March when he walked through the company’s early thinking on the virus: “This is not going to be just a major health crisis. I think it’s also going to be a major economic shock.” Zuckerberg gave remarks and took questions for more than an hour.

In those appearances, Zuckerberg isn’t always solicitous. In fact, he can be argumentative. But he shows up, and more than ever, he gives the impression of speaking his mind. Said Zuckerberg in January, 15 months into Clegg’s tenure, “This is the new approach, and I think it’s going to piss off a lot of people.”

Campbell Brown, the former TV anchor who joined Facebook in 2017, says Clegg “has been a really important ally in pushing all of us to be much more open, much more transparent about how things work at Facebook.”

In March, as the magnitude of the coronavirus crisis was just becoming clear, say those close to the situation, Clegg pushed Facebook to be proactive, to quit waiting around for responsibility to be thrust upon it. He pushed for the creation of a cross-disciplinary team to think through what the impact of the pandemic would be weeks, months, years ahead. Its members include Stanford political scientist Andy Hall, tech investor Louis Chang and former McClatchy news executive turned Facebook official Andy Pergam. It’s called the “PAT,” or Plan Ahead Team.

“No one would argue that we’re not moving as fast and as far as we can,” says Clegg on the phone that month—fresh, he adds, off a call with Zuckerberg and others to discuss Facebook’s response to the pandemic.

The knock sometimes heard about Clegg’s role at Facebook is that he’s putting lipstick on a pig, rather than changing anything about the actual pig. At the core of the company’s business model is advertising, but it’s a more complex and opaque transaction than old-line media. The network captures enormous amounts of its users’ attention on their computers and phones in part by allowing people to post with minimal oversight; the data it collects on those users then gets poured into tools that allow advertisers to precisely target ads back at them. That process generates huge amounts of revenue, and, the argument goes, Facebook isn’t going to make any meaningful changes that threaten it.

“They could hire first-class credentialed fact-checkers to look at every single political ad in the United States that’s on their platform, but that would cost them money,” says Legum, the Facebook critic who frequently challenges the company in his subscription newsletter, called Popular Information.