Desperate measures

24 Oct 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Desperate measures

As Sir Nick Clegg surprises everyone and joins Facebook, can the tech giant really lobby its way out of the hole it has dug itself into?

Former deputy Prime Minister Sir Nick Clegg has received no shortage of abuse and advice following his decision to move to California to be chief lobbyist and PR man for Facebook.

The move is a little surprising given his previous views that he found the “touchy-feely” culture of the tech giants a little “grating” and he wasn’t entirely sure companies such as Facebook paid enough tax.

For Dominic Lawson in the Daily Mail it was all a bit rich – literally.

“Everything he touches turns to ashes. If you have shares in Facebook sell,” Lawson spluttered.

You could actually argue that the period of coalition government was a period of calm stability, certainly compared to contemporary times, but that feels like history now.

Reneging on the promise to scrap university tuition fees cost both Clegg and the Liberal Democrats dear, and had the unfortunate consequence of enfeebling any attempt by the party to lead a fight-back against Brexit.

The advice from his former colleagues, given through gritted teeth and the most precise of carefully chosen words, is more interesting than the abuse.

The comment from former Lib-Dem leader Lord Paddy Ashdown drips menace gently.

“My good friend Nick Clegg’s reputation as a powerful voice for liberalism and democracy will now depend on his ability to persuade Facebook to be a global campaigner for the same values,” Lord Ashdown tweeted.

The thoughts of the current Lib-Dem leader Sir Vince Cable had similar echoes. The letter which will arrive on his desk in Facebook HQ in Menlo Park will urge him to make sure Facebook cooperates with attempts to get the company to pay their “fair share of taxes.”

Few in Europe would disagree with that sentiment but both the abuse and the advice is all a bit irrelevant.

Nick Clegg’s political career is over and he is entitled to find something to do for the rest of his working life. Purists might think it would be more agreeable if he had gone off to run a refugee charity but there is no doubt that being Facebook’s global lobbying and communications executive against the tide of rising demands to regulate the internet will at the very least be challenging.

The interesting thing is not why Clegg should, or should not have accepted a seven figure salary to spin for Facebook, but why the company should be so desperate to have him that the wooing continued for months after initially Sir Nick said No.

As Times reports have revealed, the Clegg appointment is only the illustrious tip of the iceberg and that the social media giants, if not actually on the run, feel so threatened that they are hiring small armies of lobbyists to put their case forward.

They will all be needed.

Their Washington-based lobbying body the Internet Association is even opening a London office.

They face everything from transaction taxes to massive fines for failing to correct false news or taking down hate posts promptly enough, or spreading extremist propaganda.

A head of steam is clearly building up in European democracies behind the case that the social media, deliberately or inadvertently, pose a serious threat to civil society and even psychological wellbeing, across a wide front and have done too little about it.

If Sir Nick needs to know the scale of the challenge that confronts both him and Facebook, he could do worse than read the views of historian of the internet, Cambridge professor and technology journalist John Naughton in a new book out later this week Anti-Social Media?

Contributors also include Tom George, GroupM’s UK chief executive, on the impact of online marketing - but it is Naughton who presents the case for the prosecution against Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.

Facebook, he believes, is now struggling with the implications of running a platform that allowed anybody to publish whatever they wanted whenever they wanted.

It has led to the weaponising of social media by political actors such as Russia, Facebook’s role in the murderous ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and Sri Lanka and the company’s failure to remove hate-speech and conspiracy theories.

Naughton cites what he says demonstrates the effectiveness of the Facebook targeting machine – an experiment by news website ProPublica.

The researchers paid $30 last year to place ads alongside those whose profiles showed an interest in topics such as “Jew Hater”, “How to Burn Jews” and “History of why Jews ruin the world.” All three ads were approved in 15 minutes.

Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, has gone further and has said that although he finds people who deny the Holocaust offensive he refuses to take such material down.

“I think there are things that different people might get wrong. I don’t think they are intentionally getting it wrong, but I think it’s hard to impugn intent and to understand intent,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with tech journalist Kara Swisher.

Naughton believes there are only three explanations for such naïve views and behaviour.

One is that Zuckerberg is a sociopath. Another is that he has a delusional belief that he is running an empire, rather than a company, with quasi-constitutional responsibilities to protect free speech.

The most likely explanation for Naughton is that he is scared of being accused of being biased “in the polarised hysteria that now grips American (and indeed British) politics.”

The New York Times journalist Kevin Roose has noted Zuckerberg’s increasingly erratic behaviour and suggests it could be a symptom of something bigger.

“He built a company that swallowed communication and media for much of the world and now we are seeing him back away from that. The problem with ruling the world is that you then have to govern and that is not what he seems to want to do,” argues Roose.

Naughton concludes with a simple question “in which case who will?”

If Sir Nick Clegg manages to come up with the answer to that conundrum then he will have earned his more than $1 million salary plus generous stock options.

If he fails there are plenty of governments ready and willing to come up with their answers.

Raymond Snoddy is a contributor to and co-editor of Anti-Social Media? The Impact on Journalism and Society, edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, Abranis Academic Publishing £19.95

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