How Mark Zuckerberg is trying to reduce his exposure to public scrutiny

New York
CNN Business

When Russia moved to “partially restrict” Facebook access in the country last week, drawing the social network deeper into an international conflict, it prompted a defiant response from the company’s most visible representative on the world stage.

Not Mark Zuckerberg, but Nick Clegg.

“Yesterday, Russian authorities ordered us to stop independent fact-checking and labeling of content posted on Facebook by four Russian state-owned media organizations. We refused,” Clegg, the newly-appointed president of global affairs at Facebook-parent Meta, said in the statement. “Ordinary Russians are using our apps to express themselves and organize for action. We want them to continue to make their voices heard.”

In the days following that statement, Clegg has announced new safety features for users in Russia and Ukraine, crackdowns on Russian state-media on its platforms, and other steps Meta is taking to address the conflict, including communicating with foreign governments about the issue. Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has not yet publicly commented on the conflict.

The statements underscore Clegg’s ascent to being the policy face of Meta, following his promotion last month. But they also hint at how Zuckerberg may be trying to pull off a disappearing act of sorts. The CEO and founder, according to former insiders and industry watchers, appears to be attempting to reduce his visibility — and potentially the scrutiny he faces — on the world stage even as he runs a suite of platforms with a collective user base far larger than any country.

Clegg, the former UK deputy prime minister who has worked as Meta’s vice president of global affairs and communications since 2018, was already involved in policy matters and routinely served as an aggressive public voice for the company. But with his promotion last month, Zuckeberg said Clegg will now “lead and represent us for all of our policy issues globally.” Zuckerberg also said the change would free up his own time to work on product and technology as the company invests in its vision for a virtual and augmented reality-enabled future, and would let COO Sheryl Sandberg focus more on its business, which currently faces a host of challenges.

As Meta pushes forward with its multibillion-dollar bet to reshape the company, Zuckerberg will get to focus on his vision for building a (currently still conceptual) “metaverse,” while Clegg will be tasked with explaining and justifying it and the company’s other actions to lawmakers, regulators and the public.

“When I look at this, the promotion of Nick Clegg in a sense doesn’t change anything for his role, but I think the idea is to give him a title so big that Zuckerberg doesn’t have to testify [at government hearings] anymore,” said Roger McNamee, a former Facebook investor and advisor to Zuckerberg who in 2019 published the book “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.”

But, he added, “it’s very clear to me that Mark’s vision is driving the company right now.”

Meta declined to comment on this story.

Some Meta followers say the leadership shuffle seems to mirror similar moves made by other tech founders, including Microsoft

’s Bill Gates, Amazon

’s Jeff Bezos and Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google

, all of whom stepped away from public-facing roles as their businesses faced growing scrutiny -— while retaining immense control and influence over the companies. Like those founders, Zuckerberg remains the largest shareholder with tremendous influence over Meta’s business. Unlike those founders, he also remains CEO.

But in some ways, it also represents an attempt to return to a time when Facebook was less under fire.

A return to simpler times

Before 2016, the division of labor among Facebook’s top brass looked different: Zuckerberg handled the engineering and product side of the business, and Sandberg handled “everything else,” according to Nu Wexler, who worked as a spokesperson for the company from 2017 to 2018.

But that changed, Wexler said, following the US Presidential election in 2016. Facebook started facing more questions about its role in democratic processes and society at large, with Zuckerberg called to testify several times before Congress and the European Parliament in the years that followed.

Clegg was hired by the company in 2018 against that backdrop. Although his own political career was somewhat ill-fated, Clegg’s political experience and connections were seen as assets to the company, amid growing questions from lawmakers and regulators around the world. Both Zuckerberg and Sandberg were said to have been closely involved in recruiting him to the company.

Since then, Facebook-turned-Meta has faced a slew of new PR and policy crises. A short list includes: its 2018 admission that it didn’t do enough to prevent its role in a genocide in Myanmar, European regulators passing data privacy regulations; US antitrust regulators seeking to break up the company; the January 6 Capitol riot that was organized in part on Facebook; and, most recently, the release of the Facebook Papers, which Clegg was involved in addressing last year.

With his promotion, Meta President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg has effectively become the company's most public face on policy issues.With his promotion, Meta President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg has effectively become the company's most public face on policy issues.

Clegg’s elevated profile, Wexler said, shows how the challenges Meta faces on public policy have grown too large to be housed solely within Sandberg’s department. It also underscores how Sandberg’s own responsibilities — particularly wrestling with the future of Meta’s ad business, which is now under threat due to Apple’s ad tracking changes and competition from rivals like TikTok — have given her less time to devote to policy matters.

Clegg’s new role means that in addition to handling Meta’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he’ll also likely take a leading role in some of the company’s most pressing upcoming decisions. Those include how to ensure the platform isn’t compromised by misinformation or foreign actors during the upcoming US midterm elections later this year and how to respond to calls to protect children on its platforms.

An especially important test will come when Meta must decide in January 2023 whether to permit former President Donald Trump back on its platforms ahead of the next presidential election, said Katie Harbarth, a Facebook alum who helped lead the company’s global election efforts until her departure last year. Whether Zuckerberg plays a role in that decision will send an important signal about who is truly in charge, she said.

‘Mark can run, but he can’t hide’

Clegg’s promotion undeniably makes him more visible, particularly in international business forums like Davos where being an official member of the C-suite opens many doors, said Harbath. The change may also mean that Clegg will be the executive Meta tries to put forward for future hearings on Capitol Hill and with other government leaders abroad.

“I think that the company got to the realization that Mr. Zuckerberg does not represent the company well externally, especially not in the political context,” Luria said. “That his appearances before Congress probably did the company more damage than they did good and putting somebody like Mr. Clegg in that position seems like a far better choice whenever they can.”

The question is whether hostile governments around the world will accept Clegg as a spokesman of authority or whether policymakers will continue to demand Zuckerberg. Watch any high-profile Big Tech hearing where a company is represented by anyone other than the CEO and the annoyance among government representatives is palpable.

“At the end of the day, Mark can run, but he can’t hide from the regulatory pressure,” Harbath said. “I really like Nick. I think he is going to be a really great person to talk to policymakers and relate to them. But I don’t think it’s going to stop people from wanting to talk to Mark.”

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.