British Political Veteran Steers Facebook’s Trump Decision

By Adam Satariano and Cecilia Kang

Credit...Illustration by Joan Wong; Photographs by Pete Marovich for The New York Times, Tobias Schwarz/Agence France-Presse—Getty Images

Credit...Illustration by Joan Wong; Photographs by Pete Marovich for The New York Times, Tobias Schwarz/Agence France-Presse—Getty Images

When Facebook barred President Donald J. Trump from its service in January, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, defended the decision in a Facebook post the morning after the siege of the Capitol. But the first draft was written the night before by Nick Clegg, a former British deputy prime minister who leads the company’s public affairs.

More than a week later, Mr. Clegg urged Mr. Zuckerberg to let a new outside panel decide whether to let Mr. Trump back on Facebook, employees involved in the deliberations said. Handing over control of one of the most consequential free-speech decisions of the internet age was risky advice, and some in the company wondered if Mr. Zuckerberg would agree.

“I defer to you, Nick,” Mr. Zuckerberg said, according to Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for Facebook who was at the meeting.

On Wednesday the panel, the Facebook Oversight Board, upheld the decision to suspend Mr. Trump’s account, preventing him from posting to Facebook or Instagram. But the board said Facebook had made a mistake imposing an “indefinite” ban, and it called on the company to revisit the ban within six months, to either make it permanent or set a timeline for reinstatement.

Mr. Clegg played perhaps the biggest behind-the-scenes role in decisions around Mr. Trump’s account, colleagues said, an unlikely position for a British political veteran in such an important moment for American free speech. He developed the main justification used by Mr. Zuckerberg for barring Mr. Trump, and he oversaw the creation of the board, including the selection of its members.

The board’s ruling on Mr. Trump tests the argument that Mr. Clegg championed inside Facebook: Instead of taking all the responsibility for moderation, the company should enlist a quasi-judicial board of outside experts to make the final decision. Many have questioned Facebook’s effort to create a global arbiter of speech, including some company employees, arguing in part that it lacks legitimacy because the board is Facebook-funded and stacked with hand-selected representatives.

But Mr. Clegg has said that absent rules from governments, Facebook had few good options other than creating a statelike institution of its own.

Mr. Clegg, 54, declined to comment for this article. But Facebook made executives available to discuss his role at the company, many on the condition that their names not be published. Mr. Clegg also connected The New York Times with several people outside Facebook to speak favorably of him. The Times also spoke with members of the oversight board, academics, political figures, civil society groups and others familiar with Mr. Clegg’s work.

ImageNick Clegg, right, Britain’s deputy prime minister at the time, with Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010.
Nick Clegg, right, Britain’s deputy prime minister at the time, with Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010.Credit...Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Mr. Clegg joined Facebook in 2018 to oversee its policy and public relations team after his political star had faded. The leader of the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, he was voted out of office in 2017 after alienating supporters by joining Britain’s Conservative Party in forming a coalition government. After Britain increased college tuition, cutouts of Mr. Clegg were hanged in effigy by protesters in London.

Facebook wanted Mr. Clegg to help repair its relationships with regulators, political leaders and the media after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when data improperly pulled from Facebook was used to create voter profiles. Mr. Clegg’s international experience and comfort in five languages — English, Spanish, French, German and Dutch — appealed to the American-centric company.

Friends said Mr. Clegg had initially been reluctant to join Facebook, one of the world’s most polarizing corporations. But he wanted to be back at the center of important political and policy debates. In a memo outlining how he envisioned the role, he argued that it was unsustainable for a private company like Facebook, rather than democratically elected governments, to have so much power, especially on speech-related issues.

“My advice was strongly to go for it,” said Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, whom Mr. Clegg spoke with before taking the job, “because you’re going to be part of one of the most powerful companies in the world at a moment of enormous change in the world, and when technology is at the heart of that change.”

Inside Facebook, where Mr. Zuckerberg leans on a group of friends and early employees for counsel, Mr. Clegg earned the trust of his new boss. At the company’s headquarters, where proximity to Mr. Zuckerberg is power, Mr. Clegg’s desk was placed nearby. He orchestrated a trip through Europe with Mr. Zuckerberg, meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels and President Emmanuel Macron of France in Paris.

Since Mr. Clegg’s arrival, Facebook has shifted some of its policy positions. It now appears more accepting of regulation and higher taxes. He overcame reluctance from Mr. Zuckerberg and others in the company to ban political ads in the weeks before Election Day last year. And he was the main internal supporter for recently announced product changes that give users more control over what posts they see in their Facebook feeds.

“He has a track record of knowing what it’s like to work inside a cabinet that needs to make decisions quickly and move at the speed of a country, or in this case a platform,” said Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, who worked with Mr. Clegg on the user-control changes.

Critics say Mr. Clegg’s role is an attempt by Facebook to use a respected global political figure to soften its image. Despite pledges to accept new government regulation, the company continues to fight strong oversight, policymakers said. Others said changes made by Mr. Clegg did not address core problems with the company’s privacy-invading business model, which is optimized to keep people scrolling their Facebook feeds, amplifying divisive and inflammatory content and exaggerating political divisions in society.

Mr. Clegg, who pushed the creation of an oversight board, behind Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, in Dublin in 2019.Credit...Niall Carson/PA Images, via Getty Images

“‘Are you sure you’re on the right side here?’ That is the question that will get thrown back at Clegg,” said Damian Collins, a Conservative member of the British Parliament who led an investigation of social media in politics. “He’s taken a lot of money to go work for a company that doesn’t meet the highest ethical standards.”

Nowhere has Mr. Clegg’s influence been felt more than in the creation of the oversight board, an idea that had been kicked around internally but gained momentum after he joined.

In September 2019, Mr. Clegg introduced Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a former prime minister of Denmark, to Mr. Zuckerberg to recruit her as a co-chair of the oversight board. The two former politicians had been friends for decades after meeting during graduate school at the College of Europe in Belgium.

Mr. Clegg also took steps to protect the board from criticism. After a parallel organization, the Real Facebook Oversight Board, was created by a group that wanted to raise alarms about the company’s ad-driven business model, an aide to Mr. Clegg contacted Martin Tisné, managing director of a London foundation funding the group, asking the critics, unsuccessfully, to back off.

“Accountability is a good thing, and they need to have their feet held to the fire,” Mr. Tisné said.

After the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Mr. Clegg argued to indefinitely suspend Mr. Trump’s account because, he said, the president’s posts constituted an incitement of violence in violation of the company’s policies, and then suggested sending the decision to the oversight board for a ruling.

Critics said the referral to the board was a dodge, allowing Facebook to avoid responsibility for a critical free-speech question. But Mr. Clegg said the Trump decision would give the board credibility with the public, even if it led to criticism, because it could demonstrate the board’s independence.

“People would prefer we’re not making those decisions,” Mr. Clegg told colleagues, according to Mr. Bounds, the Facebook spokesman.

On Wednesday, the board’s decision frustrated some critics, who said it showed a level of bureaucracy that the former politician had brought to the company.

“We did not need a ruling from an illegitimate Facebook board to understand that the corporation was not prepared to address governmental abuse of its platform,” said Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who researches social media.

Mr. Clegg had hoped Wednesday’s judgment would be the final word on Mr. Trump’s ban. Instead, the oversight board said Facebook must find a permanent solution on its own, effectively kicking a final decision back to Facebook’s executives.

The person who Facebook said would lead that decision-making process? Mr. Clegg.