Facebook’s unlikely new public face: How Nick Clegg went from political wipeout in London to Mark Zuckerberg’s inner circle at Meta
As a mob stormed up the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, shouting “Stop the steal!” and brandishing posters that referenced QAnon conspiracy theories, much of the world watched in dumbstruck shock. In few places was the sense of horror greater than inside the offices of Facebook.
For weeks before Jan. 6, engineers, disinformation experts, and executives within the company were fighting a losing battle to contain the spread of misinformation from groups making false claims about election fraud. They had shut down the main Stop the Steal Facebook account back in November, and in the days leading up to Jan. 6, Facebook says, the team banned hundreds of militarized right-wing groups and took down tens of thousands of QAnon pages. But it failed to take action against others who continued to parrot the same messages. One of Facebook’s biggest problems: Perhaps the most influential account spreading false narratives belonged to the sitting President of the United States, Donald Trump. Now it faced a crisis that could deal an existential blow to the company’s already battered reputation.
That evening, just before 7 p.m. East Coast time—with law enforcement restoring order at the Capitol, and with Trump having tweeted that his supporters should “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”—CEO Mark Zuckerberg consulted with key members of his brain trust. On the call were Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer; Joel Kaplan, its vice president for U.S. public policy; and Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister who served as vice president for global affairs, and a relative newcomer, in just his third year at Facebook.
The quartet decided to suspend Trump’s account for 24 hours. Later that evening and into the night, they held further calls to discuss next steps. Clegg emerged as a calm but decisive voice. He had a clear plan, although it would prove controversial: Facebook should ban Trump from its platforms indefinitely. He felt the risk that Trump would advocate violence warranted it. Zuckerberg agreed, and Clegg crafted the key points Zuckerberg would use in a blog post explaining the decision the next morning.
It was a dramatic step in a moment of crisis. But over the ensuing months, what could have been a watershed in the fight against misinformation became something more diffuse. Clegg pushed to have Facebook refer its Trump decision to the company’s new independent Oversight Board, a body that he had shepherded into existence. Some within the company thought referring the ban to the board was a risky move that Zuckerberg would veto. Yet Zuckerberg said, “Nick, I defer to you,” according to a New York Times account of the decision.
The Oversight Board ultimately concluded that Facebook had been right to suspend Trump but that the indefinite ban was disproportionate and arbitrary; Facebook amended the ban to two years, with certain conditions attached. The Board also asked Facebook to investigate the role its own platforms had played in making Jan. 6 possible—a recommendation the company has not taken up. (The company tells Fortune that “ultimately, the responsibility resides with those who broke the law and the leaders who incited them. Facebook has taken extraordinary steps to address harmful content and we’ll continue to do our part.”)
The Jan. 6 response was a critical moment not only for Facebook but for Clegg, who has since emerged as one of the most influential players in Zuckerberg’s revamped inner circle. Hired in 2018 to help repair the company’s combative relationship with policymakers, Clegg has increasingly become a key figure in shaping wider public perceptions. For most of her 13 years at Facebook, Sandberg was Zuckerberg’s clear No. 2 and, often, the company’s public face. Now, when it comes to addressing pressing regulatory and public relations challenges, Clegg has assumed those roles. “What was very attractive about [the job] to him was the importance of Facebook in the global discourse and how important it was to get these issues right,” says Jonny Oates, who was Clegg’s chief of staff during his days in British government.
According to employees who have recently left the company, Zuckerberg wants to distance himself from thorny social and political issues, preferring to present himself as technologist and innovator. That means Clegg speaks for the company on countless points of controversy, from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to continued concerns about political violence and harmful content. When Zuckerberg promoted Clegg to president, global affairs, this February, he wrote in a Facebook post that “we need someone at the level of myself (for our products) and Sheryl (for our business) who can lead and represent us for all our policy issues globally.” In June, Sandberg announced her decision to step down as COO—leaving Clegg as the closest thing to Zuckerberg’s equal. (Sandberg will remain on the board.)
While Clegg may now be Lancelot to Zuckerberg’s Arthur, there are plenty of other new faces at the Round Table. Mike “Schrep” Schroepfer, Facebook’s long-serving chief technology officer, stepped down at the end of 2021; he’s been succeeded by Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, who previously had run Reality Labs, Facebook’s virtual and augmented reality efforts. Chris Cox, an early Facebook hire and former top executive who left in March 2019, has returned in the lofty post of chief product officer. Succeeding Sandberg as COO is Javier Olivan, a 14-year company veteran who helped lead its expansion in Latin America and Asia and played key roles at WhatsApp and Instagram.
The new coterie of leaders have taken up their positions as Facebook has rebranded itself as Meta and pivoted to building the metaverse, a virtual reality world that the company sees as the next big tech trend. The reshuffle also coincides with unprecedented challenges to its core advertising business. Apple has introduced changes that make it harder for apps to track users’ activity across the internet, hampering Meta’s ability to target ads. Meanwhile, Meta is facing increased competition from TikTok in short-form video and stagnating user growth in Europe and North America. Revenue growth has slowed significantly. Meta has reportedly paused hiring in parts of the business and instituted efforts to weed out underperformers, and former employees say that many who stayed feel disoriented and uneasy. (The company says it regularly evaluates its talent pipeline, and that given the revenue deceleration “we are slowing its growth accordingly.” It has continued hiring for some functions, including expanding its engineering group working on building its metaverse offerings in London.)
While Olivan, Cox, and Boz must address Meta’s daunting commercial and technological hurdles, it is Clegg’s role to help the company pick its way across a minefield of regulatory and reputational challenges. He presents a fresh face to government officials grown exasperated with what they see as Zuckerberg’s repeated prevarications. As a former policymaker, he can empathize with regulators in a way Zuckerberg can’t—or so the thinking goes. And he insulates Zuckerberg from confrontational engagements with lawmakers that have often rebounded badly on the founder and his company.
But it is Clegg’s strategic influence that is most significant. Clegg appears to believe Meta can pull off a kind of political jujitsu: By yielding to regulation in some areas, it will gain more freedom to act in others. Regulation, in Clegg’s view, imposes a responsibility not just on the regulated, but on the regulator—which must figure out what the rules should be and how they should be enforced. Meta’s problem, Clegg thinks, is that it has allowed itself to be pushed by an angry public and lawmakers into assuming the role of the state—setting rules around speech, election integrity, and data privacy. A private company should not be making these calls, Clegg has argued; instead, he has advocated “a spirit of cooperation” between the private sector and governments. (Meta declined to make Clegg or other executives available for this story.)
The problem, Meta’s critics say, is that Clegg’s call for cooperation is a recipe for inaction in a polarized political era—enabling Meta to sustain a status quo while harmful content proliferates. “Nick Clegg sticks to the Facebook/Meta playbook we have seen over the years: deny, deflect and distract whenever Facebook/Meta comes under scrutiny,” says Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, which advocates for healthier tech and media options for children and families. And the danger remains that frustrated lawmakers will impose change on Meta, rather than coming to Clegg’s table for a dialogue.
To most Americans who are aware of him, Clegg is simply a smooth-talking Brit, a more polished spinmeister than his famously robotic boss. But in his native U.K., his reputation was decidedly mixed even before he joined a company many regard as an agent of Lucifer.
Clegg spent much of his career as a politician with the Liberal Democrats, a British party that combines libertarian principles with some progressive, collectivist policies common to Europe’s social democrats. Since its founding in 1988, the Lib Dems have played perpetual third fiddle to the U.K.’s dominant Conservative and Labour parties. Clegg, the son of a banker and a graduate of prestigious private schools and the University of Cambridge, rose rapidly through the party’s ranks to become its leader in 2007, at the age of 40. In the general election three years later, he catapulted out of obscurity with a charismatic, confident televised debate performance, coming across as a Kennedy-esque figure who combined telegenic good looks with policy depth. The press were soon talking about “Cleggmania,” and the slogan “I agree with Nick” trended on U.K. social media. At the polls, the Conservatives won the most parliamentary seats but fell short of the number needed to form a government, enabling the Lib Dems to play kingmaker. Clegg made the decision to enter a coalition with the Conservatives: Tory leader David Cameron became prime minister, with Clegg serving as deputy and his party joining the ruling government for the first time ever.
But the alliance came at significant cost to Clegg’s party and its principles. Clegg wound up supporting the harsh economic austerity program favored by the Conservatives, which hobbled many public services, while also reneging on some cherished Lib Dem policy positions, such as a pledge not to raise university tuition. The party’s poll ratings soon plunged. In the next election, in 2015, they suffered a crushing defeat, with their parliamentary seats reduced from 57 to just eight. Clegg resigned as leader of the party, and two years later, he lost his seat in Parliament.
“A lot of Lib Dems now think they were involved in a very pointless coalition,” says Tim Walker, a journalist who has been active in the party. He says some quarters of the party now see the coalition as an embarrassing fiasco, driven more by Clegg’s personal ambition than sound strategy. But fiasco or not, Clegg’s stint in office positioned him for a high-profile move into the private sector.
Richard Allan, a former Liberal Democrat politician who had become Facebook’s head of policy in Europe, helped recruit Clegg, believing his skills could help the company repair its tattered relationship with policymakers. Clegg could be especially helpful in Europe, where lawmakers had threatened to hit Facebook with massive fines over its failure to stem extremist content and hate speech and protect users’ data. Unlike Sandberg and Zuckerberg, Clegg clearly knew how to talk with politicians and policymakers. He also had strong links to the European Union, having served in the European Parliament early in his career; Clegg speaks Dutch, Spanish, German, and French in addition to English.
Sandberg led efforts to woo the British politician over a series of months, including several meetings with Zuckerberg and a dinner at his house. In the end, Zuckerberg reportedly chose Clegg over a number of American candidates, including several former Obama administration officials. His hiring was announced in October 2018, and he soon relocated his family—his wife is an international trade lawyer; they have three sons—from London to Silicon Valley.
(Earlier this week, The Financial Times reported that going forward, Clegg will increasingly split his time between Menlo Park and London. Citing an unnamed source familiar with the situation, the newspaper said Clegg’s partial move back to London was largely for personal reasons—he has elderly parents he wants to spend more time with. But the source said it would also allow Clegg to more easily address policy matters in Europe and Asia and to travel more in those regions. The company is facing a number of dire threats to its business in Europe, including the possibility that it will have to pull its main Facebook and Instagram services from the Continent later this year after European legal authorities found the company cannot guarantee that any data of EU citizens it transfers to data centers in the U.S. will be safeguarded from U.S. government surveillance.)
Back in the U.K., Clegg’s decision to join Facebook only compounded perceptions of him as unprincipled. “At the time, there was a lot of shock,” says Mark Leftly, a public affairs executive who previously served as press secretary to a senior Lib Dem politician. For one thing, the Lib Dems had been vocally critical of Facebook in the past. The move, Leftly says, also made “some people in the party see him very differently, seemingly driven more by money than they had hoped.” Bloomberg News has reported, citing sources familiar with his contract, that Clegg has been granted stock-based compensation worth $12.3 million per year in addition to a salary estimated in the high-six or low-seven figures.
Oates, Clegg’s former chief of staff, now a member of the U.K. House of Lords, disputes characterizations of Clegg as a sellout. “Money has never been his motivating factor,” he says. Instead, Clegg was driven by “the desire to get stuck into something important,” Oates says—Clegg was, after all, just 48 when the Lib Dems were ousted from power.
Clegg auditioned for his private-sector position with the role of government very much in mind. In a memo he wrote in applying for the Facebook job, Clegg argued that Facebook’s biggest problem was the public perception that it had too much power. He made the case that it was untenable for a single company, rather than democratically elected governments, to have such influence over policing speech. It is a theme he has returned to repeatedly.
Those who have worked with Clegg at Meta describe him as an able executive, humble enough to know what he doesn’t know and eager to learn from others. Katie Harbath, who left Facebook in March 2021 after a decade working on public policy issues, says she was pleasantly surprised that Clegg seemingly didn’t arrive with set views on what Facebook’s positions should be or how they should be articulated. “He spent a lot of time meeting with people throughout the company and trying to figure out how the company was trying to handle issues and what those problems were,” she says. Former employees say Clegg doesn’t hog the limelight, demonstrating a willingness to allow junior subject-matter experts to make presentations in meetings where he briefs top executives.
One former employee says many Meta staffers seemed awed by Clegg’s pseudo-celebrity. “People would say things like, ‘Oh, my God, I got to meet Nick Clegg!’ or ‘How incredible that I work at the same company as Nick Clegg,’ ” the former employee says. She says Clegg was perceived as worldly and smart: “The accent probably helps.”
Since joining Meta, Clegg has nudged the company to soften some of its policy positions, while sharpening others. He has pushed it to be more willing to accept regulation and agree to pay more tax internationally; he worked with Zuckerberg to craft an op-ed, published under Zuckerberg’s name in the Washington Post in March 2019, that laid out the rationale for this shift.
Ben Scott, a former technology policy adviser to Hillary Clinton who is now executive director of Reset, which advocates for strict regulation of Big Tech, says Clegg’s hiring has coincided with a shift in public-relations strategy. Before Clegg arrived, Scott says, the company’s response to scandals could be summarized as “We apologize and promise to do better.” After Clegg arrived, it shifted to “no apologies.” “Did he make that decision? I don’t know. He has certainly been implementing it,” Scott says.
Clegg has spent much of his tenure looking for ways to off-load some of Meta’s responsibility for policing content. He helped set up the independent Oversight Board, a body of 23 former politicians, human rights officials, and journalists with the power to review significant moves like the Trump suspension.
Clegg was instrumental in persuading the company in 2019 to more fully articulate its laissez-faire approach to political speech. He worked with Zuckerberg on a speech by the CEO at Georgetown University in which Zuckerberg offered a full-throated defense of unfettered free speech. Clegg also took the lead in explaining the company’s policy to the press and public, saying that because anything a politician said was potentially newsworthy, those utterances would be exempt from the fact-checking the company had begun applying to other forms of speech. Clegg’s position outraged some civil rights leaders, and later frustrated Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, but Clegg and Facebook offered no concessions.
Had Facebook strictly fact-checked politicians—a difficult and controversial task, to be sure—it’s possible the Jan. 6 insurrection might have played out differently. Still, Facebook’s response to the riots helped cement Clegg’s ascent. This was in part due to a misstep by Sandberg. She was widely criticized for suggesting, during an interview with Reuters just days after the violence, that the Capitol attack was largely organized on other platforms. By then, it was already apparent that this was untrue—Facebook groups and Instagram posts had played key roles in helping those who stormed the Capitol organize—and Sandberg’s comments were seen, even within Facebook, as dissembling and politically tone-deaf. It was among the last times Sandberg would give a major interview before the announcement of her resignation this summer. Clegg, meanwhile, took on even more responsibility for communications.
As Meta begins building out its offerings in the metaverse, Clegg is applying a libertarian approach to virtual reality, too. It was Clegg who penned an 8,000-word blog post, published in May under his own name, that detailed Meta’s thinking about regulating speech there. In the essay and in subsequent interviews, Clegg suggested that most metaverse speech will be ephemeral, as in-person conversations usually are, and that the public won’t expect Meta to monitor speech in most “virtual private spaces.” If there are lines to be drawn around speech, Clegg argues, Meta should not be the one holding the crayon. Governance “mustn’t be shaped by tech companies like Meta on their own,” he wrote. “It needs to be developed openly with a spirit of cooperation between the private sector, lawmakers, civil society, academia, and the people who will use these technologies.”
One former Meta staffer who worked on public policy matters says that Clegg’s position is at least coherent and defensible. With its existing platforms, this executive says, the company has tried to moderate content, and has continually fallen short of the public’s expectations. He says it would have been better to have stuck to the line Clegg has hit upon: that Meta is not going to fix society’s problems by itself.
Outside observers, however, doubt Clegg’s position will sway policymakers. “It will not work,” Zach Meyers, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, says of Clegg’s efforts to kick responsibility back to governments. Content moderation is a “hot potato,” he notes—governments don’t want to be responsible for policing speech, either. Reset’s Scott thinks it’s likely that governments will simply hold Meta accountable for whatever problems emerge, saying, “The only way the metaverse escapes regulatory oversight is if it fails as a product and no one uses it.”
Ultimately, while Clegg has brought a smoother style to Meta’s interactions with policymakers, it’s not clear that he has earned any more trust than Zuckerberg and Sandberg did. Nor is it clear that he has scored many policy wins. Asked by Fortune for an example of a legislative success, a spokesperson for Clegg cited Europe’s Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, which were passed by the EU Parliament in July. In the past, the company might simply have tried to block the legislation. Now, the spokesperson says, its approach focused on ensuring “the laws were workable for global tech companies like Meta”; without Clegg’s lobbying of EU officials, the laws could have wound up being much worse for Meta.
But groups lobbying to check Meta’s power scoff at this spin. “I find their claim preposterous,” Scott says. “I know of no provision of the DSA that they successfully changed.” He says that despite Clegg’s credentials, Meta’s reputation is so bad that many members of the European Parliament won’t even take meetings with company officials. He also says that whistleblower Frances Haugen’s “Facebook Files” leak to the Wall Street Journal in 2021 encouraged many lawmakers to vote for the DSA.
That law could significantly impact Meta’s business in Europe. The DSA includes a ban on targeted advertising aimed at children. It requires Meta to make it simple for users to switch off its content-recommendation algorithms. Its rules require social media companies to have equivalent content moderation in all 27 EU states—meaning they need to be just as good at policing problematic content in Lithuanian as in English. And regulators have the power to demand any data they want from companies to determine whether the business is complying. “It’s landmark legislation,” Common Sense Media’s Steyer says.
Clegg’s time in government was characterized by great expectations that ended in bitter disappointment. It’s not clear his time at Meta will turn out any better. Of course, within Meta, there’s only one person’s vote that counts: Zuckerberg’s. And Clegg seems to have his trust.
Brain trust transplant
Zuckerberg once called Olivan, Sheryl Sandberg’s successor as Meta’s chief operating officer, “one of the most influential people in Facebook history.” A 14-year veteran of the company, serving most recently as chief growth officer, “Javi” oversaw much of the company’s international expansion. The native of Spain later expanded his remit to include oversight of Meta’s core infrastructure, ad products, marketing, analytics, corporate development, and trust and safety issues. A consummate corporate insider, Olivan plans to be more of a traditional COO than Sandberg, without a prominent public profile.
One of the first 15 software engineers Facebook hired, back in 2005, Cox is now Meta’s chief product officer, managing the teams that develop and maintain features across all of Meta’s businesses. Employees have said that if Zuckerberg is Meta’s brain, Cox is its heart; several have described him as a “keeper of the company’s culture.” Cox’s return to Meta, after departing for a little more than a year in 2019, was considered a major morale boost. (During his time away, Cox devoted himself to philanthropic pursuits and played keyboard in a reggae band.)
“Boz” is Meta’s chief technology officer, assuming the role in January after the departure of longtime CTO Mike “Schrep” Schroepfer. Boz was one of Facebook’s earliest hires, having met Zuckerberg when he was the founder’s teaching assistant at Harvard. Boz helped build Facebook’s first content recommendation system. More recently, he has run Reality Labs, Meta’s virtual and augmented reality skunkworks. Now he’s responsible for figuring out how to make Meta’s version of the metaverse a reality. According to Zuckerberg, Boz has commented that Meta was “in danger of nice-ing ourselves to death”; employees who’ve worked with him say he’s more confrontational and aggressive than his predecessor.
This article appears in the August/September 2022 issue of Fortune with the headline, “A new face, an old dilemma.”
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