Nick Clegg: the man behind Meta in Russia

Shortly after Russian troops invaded his country in February, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy sent letters to Meta Platforms Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg. He wanted them to stop Russian-backed media outlets from posting on Facebook in Ukraine; he also called for Facebook and Instagram to be cut off in Russia.

Neither Zuckerberg nor Sandberg responded. Instead, Zelenskiy listened to Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister of Great Britain, who worked for the last three years as a high-ranking executive at Meta. Clegg, who spent his political career as a Liberal Democrat, had spoken to Zelenskiy months earlier, in a video chat in which the Ukrainian president talked to him and Sandberg about opening an office in the country. Clegg told Zelenskiy that Meta would block Russian media in Ukraine but would not stop operating in Russia; he argued that his services helped organize protests and obtain reliable information. Clegg also spoke with Russian officials, who demanded that Facebook stop verifying posts from state-backed media accounts. When he refused, they first speeded up and then blocked the social network from operating in the country, doing for Zelenskiy what Clegg would not do.

He has remained in contact with Zelenskiy and his staff by email. Clegg’s relationship with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been far less cooperative. As the fighting continued, Meta temporarily changed its policy to allow users in Ukraine to call for violence against Russian soldiers in the context of war, or to make non-specific calls for Putin’s death. Several days later, Clegg clarified that his rules did not allow calls to kill any head of state. However, Russia responded by banning Instagram.

Meta hired Clegg, 55, in 2018 to handle high-risk negotiations with government officials, although he was mainly thinking of lobbying, not war games. Clegg is now one of the company’s most influential executives, playing a central role in both his political decisions and how he communicates them publicly. Zuckerberg announced that he would promote him to chairman of global affairs and described him as the point person on all policy issues; he said that he was now “on a level” with himself and Sandberg at the top of the company.

To some extent, this only recognized a division of labor that was already underway. But also it meant a new leadership in an institution that for a long time was dominated by its two main executives. “The baton is being passed for a very good reason,” says Richard Allan, a former UK Member of Parliament who spent a decade as a policy executive at Meta in Europe before leaving in 2019. “Almost the worst part of the job it’s making decisions on policy issues where you’ll be attacked anyway. Now they have someone who quite enjoys making political decisions.” It is the first time that a US technology company has hired such a high-ranking European politician. Why would Clegg want the job if he had to move to California and report to a controlling CEO with the final say in any decision?

During the interview process, Clegg sent Sandberg a memo outlining Facebook’s main political challenges. Among the solutions suggested was asking governments and other outside groups to help regulate speech onlinefreeing Meta from the need to make all those decisions on her own.

Clegg then joined her and Zuckerberg at the CEO’s home for a dinner that left all three feeling good about working together. Three years later, the chemistry seems to persist. “He’s a straight shooter”Sandberg says. “I deeply respect him.” She describes Clegg as a friend

.Clegg has spent much of his time in Meta exploring its role in surveillance of users’ speech. Initially, he accompanied the creation of the Facebook Oversight Board, an independent group of experts designed to review some of the company’s decisions on content moderation. The following year, she was one of the forces behind Facebook’s decision to take a hands-off approach to political content, according to two people familiar with the matter. In May 2020, the Joe Biden campaign complained to Zuckerberg that Meta had “fallen far short” in policing election-related misinformation. Clegg said combating misinformation was a priority, as he defended Meta’s approach, according to a copy of the letter he reviewed. Bloomberg Business Week. In that sense, he successfully pushed for a ban on political ads in the last week of the elections and was key in Meta’s most important political decision: removing Donald Trump from their platforms. Compared to the difficult and, to many, unsatisfying decisions Meta has made around American policy, his moves since the start of the war in Ukraine have been relatively easy. However, Meta will still have to make awkward calls. Its WhatsApp platform continues to operate in Russia, and the company could still face pressure to block it or do something that would cause Russia to ban it. Eventually Meta will have to decide what it is willing to do to bring Facebook and Instagram back to the country.

Clegg will travel to Europe, where Meta still inspires deep skepticism. In the US, meanwhile, he faces a lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission. The company’s public standing is worse now than when Clegg joined it, and he looks forward to an end to the era when governments didn’t intervene in social media companies. “In five years we will be a much more regulated entity”, He says. “There are things we will be wrong about. But I do think we’re getting a lot more right than many of our critics assume.” — With the collaboration of Brad Stone

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Nick Clegg: the man behind Meta in Russia