Why Clegg's Facebook appointment is good for everyone

Nick Clegg’s appointment as head of global affairs and communications at Facebook was as surprising as it is interesting. We asked Politics.co.uk editor Ian Dunt to analyse what it means for the social media giant, and all of us.

There are few names out there which trigger such widespread outrage as Nick Clegg. In divided political times, he is a unifying character, bringing everyone together in loathing. His appointment to a well-paid job at Facebook was greeted with what felt like an almost orgiastic outbreak of disdain. Here was the final proof that the former Lib Dem leader was a self-interested neo-liberal lining his own pockets with the profits of a firm that has suffered reputationally in recent years. From the Sun to the Guardian, the sneering was so powerful you could use it as an alternative energy source.

You might wonder why a company facing its own well-publicised PR problems would decide to bring in a politician who is so universally scorned. The answer is Europe. The European Commission is taking on Facebook hard, much harder than Washington, which Silicon Valley finds it quite easy to control. Clegg was an MEP between 1999 and 2004, speaks several languages, and is well-regarded on the continent. He'll be a canny operator for Facebook on the handshake and quiet-chat circuit.

That seems to validate the idea that Clegg is selling his soul for corporate silver, but real life is complicated and resistant to the easy moral arithmetic of Twitter's virtue-signallers. People can get into an organisation using their skills in one area and then lobby for political change from an influential position on the inside. This has always been Clegg's operating model.

His own Facebook post announcing the move suggests that his main interest is in dealing with the more political areas of Facebook's recent difficulties. "Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, Oculus and Instagram are at the heart of so many people’s everyday lives," he wrote, "but also at the heart of some of the most complex and difficult questions we face as a society: the privacy of the individual; the integrity of our democratic process; the tensions between local cultures and the global internet; the balance between free speech and prohibited content; the power and concerns around artificial intelligence; and the wellbeing of our children."

Clegg's instincts are reliably and commendably liberal. He understands that democracy requires accurate information in order for voters to make informed decisions, but that fake news and Russian interference are making this impossible. He knows that people online are entitled to a protective sphere of privacy which governments and corporations have no right to contravene.

Liberalism is based on safeguarding the rights of the individual, especially where they are under attack by the demands of the group. Social media has done something rather strange to our idea of what a group is. It has delocalised it, so that people start to associate across vast geographical distances on the basis of their politics, or their identity, or even their sexual habits. That offers opportunities to expand the freedom of the individual, to allow them a voice, but it also offers the chance for people to gang together and silence individuals through targeted harassment.

There are no easy answers to these problems. What you want is people with decent liberal judgement, in influential positions within important organisation. So far, Facebook and other social media firms have acted as if judgement is not their business. They just aggregate. They've used free speech as a shield against justifiable moral demands. They've been desperate not to make judgement calls on what harassment is, or what constitutes fake news, because they knew the implication of doing so would be a system-wide operation which would entail a lot more staff and legal responsibilities.

But this is not a tenable position to hold. They must be involved in what they publish and they must police the space they have created. They have to show thought and principle in how they evaluate the issues their invention has created.

Critics will say that Clegg has previously joined one organisation and failed to restrain it from its worst urges. That organisation was the government, when he formed a coalition with the Tories in 2010. This saw the Lib Dems support tuition fees, against their election promises, and tarnish their own brand and that of Clegg personally.

It's true that the party made some terrible miscalculations in government. But those disparaging Lib Dem influence have clearly not been paying much attention to politics since. There is almost no comparison between the Tories before and after the 2015 election. The government was fairly stable when the Lib Dems were in it. Once they left, everything fell into a state of perpetual chaos, crushing investor confidence, triggering a daily internal Tory war within Cabinet and the parliamentary party, and pushing the country many degrees to the right. If government is anything to go by, Clegg is highly effective at moderating behaviour within an organisation.

His problem is that he practices the art of what does not happen. This is a rather thankless task. In politics, it is impossible to win an election on the basis of the bad things you stopped. People want evidence of the exact opposite: The positive things you achieved. But that is a quirk of a human brain, that we cannot appreciate upbeat counterfactuals, not a decent marker of meaningful political accomplishment.

If Clegg can block as many bad policies in Facebook as he did in government, he'll have done internet users, which is everyone, and voters, which should be everyone, a world of good. He'll still get no thanks for it. But at least he'll have the kind of pay-packet which makes thank-yous less important.

The opinions are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Ian Dunt
By Ian Dunt