My trip into the metaverse with Facebook defender-in-chief Nick Clegg
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Nick Clegg may be available in Berlin. He has a slot in Paris. He’ll make time for lunch in Brussels. Then Omicron hits, and the vice-president of global affairs at Meta, formerly known as Facebook, is not coming to Europe after all. Instead Clegg offers to meet . . . in the metaverse, the immersive digital world hyped as the successor to the internet. In the metaverse, no one can give you Covid. So I put on a bulky virtual reality headset, sign away my data and log into a simulated meeting room.
There I find that the one-time deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom is now a wrinkle-free avatar with the word “Nick” hovering above it. “Can we get the sneering and mockery out of the way?” says the avatar. Sadly not, because he doesn’t have any trousers on. Neither do I. We don’t even have legs. To quote Microsoft computer scientist Jaron Lanier, Meta’s vision of the metaverse has so far not resolved “basic issues of geometry”.
Clegg is undeterred. This is how he holds team meetings each Monday morning. “I do feel like I’m sitting next to you,” he says. Is this believable? Clegg’s facial expression is computer-generated, so I have limited insight. But one thing is clear: if you thought that the one-time idol of liberal Britain regretted his move to Silicon Valley, his legless avatar suggests otherwise. If you saw his recent video with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg celebrating the company’s name change and wondered if he has been taken hostage, he hasn’t.
Clegg is signed up to Meta just as he signed up, as leader of Britain’s centrist Liberal Democrats in 2010, to a controversial coalition with the Conservative party. His visit to the metaverse is the equivalent of his famous rose garden press conference with David Cameron. It’s a signal he’s fully committed.
No company — not even ones that produce coal, tobacco or Fox News — receives more negative publicity today than Meta. The company’s name change in October testified to the damage done to the Facebook brand.
Since joining in late 2018, Clegg has been its chief diplomat, its corporate shock-absorber. He led the decision to suspend Donald Trump for praising rioters after the US election. When whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked documents showing internal alarm at the company’s impact on mental health and democracy, Clegg went on TV to fight back. Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg have edged out of view. “They wanted a potential frontperson to take all the beatings,” says one former senior Meta employee.
The beatings have been plentiful. “If he went there thinking he could be a force for change, I don’t know how he can think he’s been successful,” says Damian Collins, a British Conservative MP and critic of Big Tech. “I thought history would be kind to Nick Clegg,” says Chris Bowers, a Lib Dem activist and author of a sympathetic 2012 biography. “I changed my mind . . . To take the Facebook job, this company that was so instrumental in the Lib Dems’ defeat in 2015. His reputation in the Lib Dems is roughly what Tony Blair’s is in Labour.”
Clegg calls himself “the most senior European in an executive position in Silicon Valley”. He is at the top table of a behemoth that wants to grip not only social media and messaging, but entertainment, virtual reality and digital currency too. He’s gone from a government trying to limit its £1tn national debt to a company trying to lift its $1tn stock-market valuation.
Yet his basic calculation is familiar. Entering coalition with Cameron’s Conservatives, Clegg judged it was better to join those in power than to shout at them. He thought the public would praise him for what he did change, not blame him for what he couldn’t. A competitive, often dominant personality, he thought he’d be seen as a tough negotiator, not a wimp. All this applies at Meta. Clegg doesn’t look for impossible jobs; he just underestimates the difficulty, says Vince Cable, one of his successors as Lib Dem leader.
Although Clegg defends his record with the coalition, its central tenet — of brutal cuts to public spending in the wake of the global financial crisis — has ever fewer adherents. To most observers, his endeavour ended in tears. Why should his time at Meta be any different?
Before Clegg and I meet as avatars, we speak on Zoom. He sits in his book-lined study in his home in the Silicon Valley neighbourhood of Lindenwood. “It’s a mixture of Desperate Housewives and suburban Kent,” he says.
The first thing that Clegg and Facebook have in common is a rapid political rise and fall. It took Boris Johnson 18 years to go from MP to prime minister. Clegg went from new MP to deputy prime minister in five years. He was the breakout star of Britain’s 2010 election campaign. At the time, Facebook was merely six years old and had been credited with helping elect Barack Obama and mobilising the Arab spring.
Six years later, both their fortunes would be upended. Having tried to bridge right and left, Clegg ended up satisfying neither. He had excrement posted through his letterbox. The Lib Dems lost 49 of their 57 seats in the 2015 election, trounced by their former coalition partners. In 2016 came Brexit — an almost personal rebuke to Clegg, a former member of the European parliament and a speaker of five languages. (“Is there ANYTHING British about Nick Clegg?” the Mail on Sunday once asked.) Shortly after, Facebook was blamed for its perceived role in Trump’s election.
Unlike his coalition partners Cameron and George Osborne, Clegg didn’t quit parliament after the Brexit vote. He lost his seat in 2017. “My heart still lies in politics, but there was a considerable amount of organ rejection,” the avatar known as Nick says. “I would have loved to be British prime minister. But I hit the buffers.”
He was 50. “I couldn’t get my head round the idea that I was going to spend the next 20, 30 years possibly pontificating to absolutely no impact whatsoever, sitting on a few boards making ponderous observations, maybe lecturing here and there, popping up on the Today programme as a ghost from the past. I thought, ‘I’ve got far too much energy for that.’” He is now 54, younger than the current leaders of Britain’s three main political parties: Johnson, Sir Keir Starmer and Sir Ed Davey.
In 2018, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg approached Clegg, an internationalist with first-hand experience navigating the EU’s regulatory system. “At the beginning I thought, ‘No, that’s just a leap too far.’” He had doubts about moving his family to the west coast. His wife, Miriam González Durántez, worked as a lawyer in London; the couple have three sons. Clegg says he also wanted to be certain he would have the power “within the company to make the changes that I think are necessary”. At a dinner at Zuckerberg’s home, Clegg says the CEO told him, “I need outsiders.”
At the same time, Clegg felt unmoored from Britain. He had written a book, How to Stop Brexit (And Make Britain Great Again), the title of which he is now a “little embarrassed” about. Ultimately, he realised “that, for better or for worse, there was no way I was going to be able to reinvent myself in the UK”.
In Britain, Clegg’s move was greeted as his second big sell-out. In coalition, he’d reneged on a Lib Dem pledge to scrap university tuition fees. At Facebook, he’d be contradicting his previous view that he found “the messianic Californian new-worldy-touchy-feely culture of Facebook a little grating”. But it also fits. Despite a comfortable upbringing — his father was a banker, he himself went to Westminster, a top private school, then read anthropology at Cambridge — Clegg sees himself as anti-establishment. “I certainly became more and more anti-establishment the longer I was in the establishment.”
That establishment includes the Murdoch press, with which he has battled in government and at Meta. Clegg’s version of liberalism is pro-business and pro-free speech. He has justified Trump’s suspension by invoking JS Mill’s argument that free speech does not allow you to whip up a mob outside a corn-dealer’s house.
Clegg’s role involves supervising Meta’s lobbying, communications and content policies. These are activities that Zuckerberg strongly dislikes being dragged into and, for many years, delegated to Sandberg. This corner of Silicon Valley is a bureaucratised world of acronyms, back-to-back meetings and endless requests for decisions. “There are a lot of echoes of the civil service,” says Richard Allan, who preceded Clegg as the MP for Sheffield Hallam and who later, as a Facebook executive, helped recruit Clegg.
By 2018, Facebook had abandoned its “Move fast and break things” mantra and accepted regulation was coming. There was an internal proposal for an independent board to review content-moderation decisions. Clegg made it happen and convinced former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt to join. He pushed for a temporary ban on lucrative political ads during the 2020 US election.
“Clegg was willing to go further in restricting things than others might,” says the former senior Meta employee. He tried to open the company up in other ways. Nate Persily, a Stanford law professor, says Clegg “is very pro-access for researchers . . . He’s fighting the good fight inside. But he’s also fallen on his sword so many times that he’s quite punctured at this point.”
Clegg’s hardest decision was the Trump ban, “which Mark asked me to lead on. I really, really wrestled with that,” he tells me. In posts in January 2021, Trump “transgressed some pretty basic principles”, but he was also president of “the greatest democracy on the planet”. Clegg recalls: “I spent a long time, hours and hours of Zoom calls, with my team, looking at all the different permutations, speaking to Mark frequently.” After Facebook and Twitter both banned Trump, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron criticised the companies’ influence. (Trump can return to Facebook in January 2023.)
The problem is that, during Clegg’s time, Meta’s reputation has not improved. One idea that Clegg’s team considered was fact-checking politicians in autocracies, but not democracies. But he says no workable definition of democracy could be found. He wants to present this, and other dilemmas, as problems facing society, not just Meta: “If you, or any FT readers, have got any neat answers about how on earth we are meant to deal with political speech generally, please put it on a postcard. We’re acutely aware that, as a private company, we don’t have the legitimacy to act as referees. Yet that’s exactly what we end up doing, because the politicians themselves don’t come up with rules of the road.”
Clegg adds that Facebook “will make some further changes here. It’s not sustainable that we are being asked to be rule-makers about how democracy and political speech plays out on the platform.” Meanwhile, he says his team regularly receives requests “from the Vietnamese Communist government, from the Putin administration, from the Erdogan administration, from the Thai authorities dealing with these anti-monarchists, saying ‘Facebook must take this down and that down’. All of these jurisdictions are gravitating towards the Chinese model of the internet.”
In September, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, accused the company of putting profits before safety. The documents she released showed that Facebook’s algorithm changes in 2018 boosted extremist content and that the company was unable to fully contain anti-vaccine comments, particularly those not in English. Meta tried to pre-empt the Wall Street Journal’s reporting on the leaks, publishing a rebuttal before the newspaper’s articles appeared in print. Clegg then accused the press of cherry-picking and of having “a very vested interest in pushing aggressive regulation”.
Now, Clegg says the impact of Haugen’s revelations could “be both good and bad”, meaning good if it leads to well-designed regulations, bad if it leads to misguided ones: “For instance, I keep hearing that the answer is to switch off the algorithm.”
To his critics, this is a classic false choice. Clegg, as he did in politics, frequently presents himself as occupying the reasonable middle between two extremes. “Those extremes aren’t real,” says Tory MP Damian Collins. “No one is saying he should turn the algorithm off.” In government, he justified the coalition as better than financial collapse or unbridled Conservative austerity; now Clegg says Meta’s role moderating content is an “impossible situation”. Perhaps anticipating this posture, Haugen warned a US Senate committee that “Facebook wants you to believe that the problems we’re talking about are unsolvable”.
Clegg has an intellectual confidence that can come across as blunt or sanctimonious. “I think a key to Nick is his Dutch mother. He is very Dutch. He takes a stance, and he says, ‘To hell with it,’” says one Lib Dem peer. “He used to come to meetings and tell us how useless we were — all has-beens.”
Clegg has declined invitations to represent Meta at Westminster committees; as global head, the job does not naturally fall to him. Yet Collins says that MPs’ views on Meta have hardened since he joined. The UK’s Online Safety Bill, a flagship piece of tech regulation, will impose some legal responsibility on platforms for the content they host. Meta infuriated British parliamentarians earlier this year by sending an executive to give evidence about the bill who admitted she hadn’t read it in detail.
Clegg criticises the bill for creating sanctions for content that is not illegal but is abusive, while creating exemptions for journalists. “What do we do about people who declare themselves to be citizen journalists? [Far-right activist] Tommy Robinson claimed to be a citizen journalist before we kicked him off Facebook.” So far, these arguments have not landed. Clegg’s call for an international, Bretton Woods-style agreement on tech has also raised doubts among sceptics, who argue that deadlock between major powers would benefit companies who want as little regulation as possible.
Joe Biden’s electoral victory last year generated some hope within Meta that Clegg could become the company’s president whisperer. Despite some progressive stylings in 2020, Biden has spent most of his career in the centre, lauding consensus-building. But in the White House, he has largely delegated tech policy, and Meta has struggled to find a well-known Democrat to oversee its lobbying operations in Washington. “Facebook is simply too unpopular among most Democrats for their message even to be heard,” says one Washington tech lobbyist. “Nick Clegg is not going to be able to change that.”
In Brussels, where Clegg once helped devise telecoms regulation as an MEP, Meta has fared better. It has run ad campaigns and sponsored think-tanks, helping to water down the European Parliament’s proposal for a ban on targeted advertising. “They made people believe that targeting advertising is good for [small and medium enterprises],” says Alexandra Geese, a Green MEP and tech critic. “I think they have been very successful.”
To some, Meta is malign. This is the company that breached orders from regulators in the UK and US and didn’t do all it could to curb violence in Myanmar and Ethiopia. (This month, Rohingya refugees have filed a lawsuit seeking $150bn in damages.) A softer critique is that Meta is messy, overextended and blinkered. As in government, Clegg may have smoothed some edges but he has not challenged the core. His liberal belief in individual choice has come up against the reality that most users don’t change their settings, and Meta limits the control of those who do. (You can click for your Facebook News Feed to be ranked chronologically, rather than by the algorithm, but it reverts the next time you log in.)
Meta’s critics say that Zuckerberg’s dominance as founder, chief executive and chairman prevents meaningful change. Clegg insists there is “a very open and intellectually combative culture. It’s not a royal court. In the end all the big decisions will be taken by [Zuckerberg]. I know there’s a caricature that somehow he’s sitting there on his silk-embroidered throne, instructing his minions to do X, Y and Z. It’s not the way it works at all.” Do people raise their voices? “I don’t raise my voice anyway, but you bet we can have disagreements.”
In the promotional video about the metaverse, Clegg was filmed calling Zuckerberg. “I hope I’m not interrupting,” he said to the founder. “I always have time for you,” Zuckerberg replied. It was very scripted, presumably to give the impression that Clegg had the boss’s ear. Many viewers cringed. “How on earth did [Clegg] agree to it?” says a communications executive at one tech firm. Instead of vociferously making its case and announcing small changes, “the very best thing [Meta] can do is shut up for a long period”.
The Oversight Board that Clegg championed can examine a few high-profile cases. But it has not yet examined how the platform works in practice, including which content goes viral. (It may do, says one person familiar with the board’s discussions.) Meta still believes that connecting people — via the internet or the metaverse — will be good, when past experience suggests there will be significant downsides. If social media creates bubbles and distortions, what will happen in the metaverse, which aims to be not just a screen but a whole-body immersion?
Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former head of security, says the company lacks the technology to detect abuse in the metaverse. Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, sees the metaverse as another way that people will lose their connection to their environment and communities. She asks: “Isn’t it time that we stop hyping the things that technology can do and start asking what would be helpful to us as human beings?”
Clegg says he is “extremely relieved” social media wasn’t there to record “my numerous, very, very bad misdemeanours in my teens and early 20s . . . I don’t think I would have made one step in public life if I’d done so.” But he cites the positive impact of social media on his sons, now aged 19, 17 and 12. “Particularly during the pandemic, the way I see that my kids have maintained friendships and in an imperfect fashion their education, and just generally they’re super-engaged in the world outside . . . Like anything, you’ve got to use [social media] in moderation. Like anything, it’s got a dark side.”
I mention my friend’s teenager who wakes up to 1,000 WhatsApp messages each morning. “Golly. Wow.” Clegg says he has spoken to Cass Sunstein and David Halpern, proponents of nudge economics, about how to make apps less sticky. “Social media generally has pioneered frictionless communication. I think it’s a legitimate debate, particularly when you’re dealing with harm, about how you can introduce friction.”
In Silicon Valley, Clegg is still a newcomer. He doesn’t use Instagram or Facebook News Feed much, although he does use WhatsApp. His pay is not public. A more junior role on his team is being recruited at more than $2.5m (his boss, Sandberg, earned $24m last year; his closest equivalent at Alphabet earned $51m, mainly in stock awards). “I’m well paid. I’m generally not a wildly extravagant guy. We live a comfortable life, but we don’t live a Beverly Hills life — at least I don’t think we do.” He drives a second-hand Volvo, not a Tesla.
Would he stay five more years in California? “No, no . . . I’m such a European at heart. I enjoy the work immensely — I’ve got absolutely no sell-by-date about the work,” he says. But his “heart belongs massively 5,000 miles away”.
He insists government was “the most meaningful work I’ve ever done in my life, and I can’t expect I will ever do a job that will be as meaningful as that”. At Meta, Clegg still receives constant abuse, but “it’s less excoriating” than being party leader. His former allies stand by him. “I still say I’d walk over broken glass for him,” says one MP. “He’s quite funny about Facebook: he says everybody hates Facebook apart from the 3bn people who use it.” But a political comeback is unthinkable.
Maybe it is ironic that Clegg, who still seems more at ease expressing himself in 280 pages than 280 characters, has ended up being social media’s defender. Yet his liberalism is founded on the idea that individuals should largely be free to make their own decisions. His belief that it’s better to work on the inside than criticise from the outside is core to his whole outlook.
Those surprised by his decisions to join the coalition or Meta never really knew him. To admit defeat at Meta would be, in effect, to admit defeat in coalition too. “The problem is, for people who hate Nick Clegg and hate the coalition, they’re going to say that anyway, so what am I supposed to say? I’m a morally feeble human being?” His avatar seems to fill up with familiar exasperation, then adds: “I just don’t live my life according to what people who disagree with me most think.”
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer. Additional reporting by Hannah Murphy in San Francisco and Kiran Stacey in Washington
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Letter in response to this article:
Metaverse gives the body politic a makeover / From Peter Daly, Blackrock, Dublin, Ireland