Facebook’s public strategy has overtaken Sheryl Sandberg
For the past two years, the company’s public face in government capitals has instead been Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who is now Meta’s Chairman of Global Affairs. He served as the de facto chief messenger, championing the company’s political reputation in interviews, blog posts and conversations with policy makers.
“Bringing Nick in was an acknowledgment that they needed someone who could talk politics,” said Crystal Patterson, who worked at Facebook for seven years on various political teams before moving to lobbying Democrats on Capitol Hill in february. “The approach they’ve taken in bringing in Nick, and being a bit more publicly measured, reflects how risky the political terrain is.”
Meta declined to comment for this article. Clegg and Sandberg did not respond to requests for comment.
While Clegg doesn’t control the operational side of Meta like Sandberg did, that may be part of his appeal – creating some distance between his personality and the company he represents.
Clegg himself has leaned into his position as an “outsider” to send the message that he is trustworthy.
“I’m a stranger to both Silicon Valley and Washington,” Clegg wrote in the CNBC op-ed last year, saying that makes him the person who can negotiate compromises between Republicans and Democrats on the technological regulations. “To move forward, we need to break the deadlock in DC,” he wrote, adding, “no one wants the status quo.”
Sandberg, who announced on Wednesday that she was stepping down as chief operating officer, came to Facebook with her own political background as a former senior aide to Clinton administration Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. But he lacked the high-level political experience that Clegg brings to the table.
And Sandberg saw her star wane as she fought to protect Facebook’s reputation at a time when the company was freshly caught off guard by accusations it mishandled its user data, allowing propaganda to spread. Russian language and the dissemination of hate speech.
Sandberg was sidelined from the company’s lobbying and public relations work since shortly after the 2016 presidential election, when Congress focused on Facebook’s role in providing a form to Russian disinformation. Congressional aides would no longer accept anyone but Zuckerberg to represent the company on Capitol Hill, according to two people familiar with the dynamic who were granted anonymity to discuss private conversations.
“In the golden age of technology, early on, members of Congress would rush to come to campus or see Sheryl when she came,” said Katie Harbath, who worked in Facebook’s DC office for more than a decade as a Republican lobbyist. before leaving last year. “Things have really started to turn” for Facebook in 2016, she added.
While Zuckerberg was in the political spotlight, he championed Facebook’s hands-off approach to moderating political speech in a manifesto-style speech in Georgetown in 2019, and met with a group of Democratic senators in September of that year. He dined with then-President Donald Trump at the White House and hosted a dinner with prominent conservative figures such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson, drawing criticism that he lined up on the right. Over the past four years, Zuckerberg has testified on Capitol Hill eight times.
But Zuckeberg remained an often problematic spokesperson for the company. Following revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen late last year, Zuckerberg portrayed Facebook as the victim of a smear campaign, drawing criticism from lawmakers. And he has been denounced by civil rights groups for his decision to take no action against a message from Trump threatening that “looters” would be shot during the 2020 George Floyd protests.
Since joining Facebook, Clegg has taken some of that warmth away from Zuckerberg. Clegg has published blog posts, statements and media appearances portraying Facebook as a company that does its best to solve complex problems and protect its users. Clegg wrote a blog post titled “What the Wall Street Journal Got Wrong” when the newspaper began reporting on Instagram’s negative impact on children’s mental health. The former UK politician insisted Facebook was open to regulation while refusing to apologize for the company’s conduct.
Sandberg, meanwhile, has struggled to recover from reputational blows like taking partial responsibility for signing off on some work done by Definers, a Republican opposition research firm working for Facebook that made the liberal billionaire George Soros the force behind anti-Facebook criticism and helped frame senators as hypocrites for criticizing Facebook while taking large campaign donations from the company.
More recently, Sandberg annoyed lawmakers when she downplayed Facebook’s role in the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill. (Evidence in court documents has since shown that many protesters used Facebook to communicate about their illegal activities that day.)
Weeks after her comments, a Facebook consultant texted a congressional aide insisting that Sandberg’s comments were not misleading and that she “never said that Facebook takes no responsibility. “, an aide told POLITICO.
“Sandberg sought to demonstrate that she was right the entire time regarding her comments about January 6 not being scheduled on Facebook,” said the Democratic House senior aide, who spoke under on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly. “It was completely ineffective cleaning.”
Even amid criticism, however, Sandberg made a name for himself as a senior Facebook executive who was willing to hear from social justice advocates and election integrity officials concerned about the platform’s contributions. of social media to the ills of society. Sandberg spoke with civil rights group Color of Change after the Definers incident and promised that Facebook would conduct a civil rights audit. She oversaw the audit process, which was led by civil rights attorney Laura Murphy, and pledged to make the platform safer for people of color going forward.
“Sheryl Sandberg has time and again pledged to engage, to reach out, to try to be in conversation with civil rights groups,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change. “And she worked to try to find ways to solve a problem. I don’t believe we would have gotten a public civil rights audit without Sheryl. Facebook has since hired a vice president for civil rights. But Robinson said the problem comes down to Zuckerberg’s tight control over the company.
“I don’t know who is supporting this work at the C-suite level,” Robinson said. “The same person who was in charge of Facebook before this announcement is still in charge of Facebook now.”
In the end, Zuckerberg only concentrated more power in corporate decision-making.
“At the end of the day, Mark always has the last call,” Harbath said.
Zuckerberg brought in Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, in 2011, sparking years of criticism that he has outsized control over the company’s content moderation decisions and is sympathetic to conservative figures . Facebook employees and outside critics have accused Kaplan of using his position to accommodate the GOP.
Sandberg, meanwhile, pushed to create dedicated election integrity teams within the company, which have become a central part of Facebook’s strategy in combating election misinformation.
In recent years, Facebook has taken more responsibility for the content circulating on its platform. The company has cracked down on hate speech significantly and kicked Trump off the platform following Jan. 6.
But Facebook has since pivoted to the metaverse, both with the name change and with Zuckerberg’s decision to focus most of his attention on creating this virtual reality world on the Facebook platform.
That leaves Clegg as the crisis manager for Facebook’s thorniest issues around misinformation and hate speech. He tries to navigate between the opposing complaints of conservative and liberal arguments, seeking to carve out a pro-regulation stance that could appease both sides of the aisle.
In this CNBC op-ed, Clegg said he made progress in the UK because he brought together centre-left and centre-right politicians. “It worked because we focused on moving forward on the things we agreed on,” Clegg wrote.