Three-D Issue 31: Facebook, Nick Clegg and the Future of Democracy

On the same day on which he was hired as Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs and Communication, Sir Nick Clegg heralded his appointment in a Guardian op-ed as an opportunity “to build bridges between politics and tech”. The former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown urged Clegg to stand up for democracy and liberalism and to “persuade” Facebook to campaign for the same values. Others, in commentary, scorned the idea that this could be achieved.

However, what’s important here is not Nick Clegg’s ability to deliver this. Yes, he was promised a strategic role, according to reports. Yet the context of his appointment is one in which Facebook is preparing for war with its would-be regulators, not for compromise. In the UK, where more than 40% of the population uses Facebook daily, Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly refused to come before parliament. Yet, he is happy to poach one of its recently deposed members.

What is important here is the assumption that the world, perhaps reinforced by this rapidly growing antagonism between Facebook and national governments, can be divided into the domains of politics and tech. This metaphor of ‘bridging’, used by Clegg, assumes that the two occupy different sides of the river. This leads us ask a question, on which side is the grass greener? For Clegg and those that hold hope in him, intuitively, the answer must be politics, since it is from here that the values of liberalism and democracy belong. It is, then, an apparent case of positively politicising Facebook.

However, the problem with this politics vs technology dichotomy is, simply, that it doesn’t exist. As Dave Karpf laid out in his recent Wired article, politics is a tech story, and vice versa – at least in the way we cover it – since you “cannot write a story about Facebook, Twitter, or Google without writing a story about politics”. Far from being over the river, politics and technology are the same patch of grass – in democratic countries, Facebook’s users are simultaneously citizens.

If we dispose with this dichotomy, it is possible to see that there are in fact several parallels between Facebook and the liberal centrism that Clegg represents. Exploring them helps to unravel what this talk of bridging politics and technology really means, the growing conflict between Facebook and governments, and touch on the wide and significant concern about the future of democracy.

Firstly, Facebook and liberal centrism have long defined themselves by what they are not. In the opening lines of the 2010 leader’s debate, Clegg positioned the Liberal Democrats as the alternative to the “old politics” of Brown and Cameron, declaring that, “I’m here to persuade you that there is an alternative”. This continued over many years, into the 2017 general election and into his Guardian op-ed, where with rhetorical flourish, Clegg sets up his progressive mission against “people from the left and right” who would shout him down. Facebook, meanwhile, has long joined Google in ‘not being one of those evil companies’, and in its recent public relations campaign, set up a host of things Facebook wasn’t for, including “fake news”. This has allowed both to project, and thus exploit, a sense of political neutrality when under scrutiny.

Secondly, it is easy to forget that not so long ago, both Facebook and Nick Clegg were being held up as heroes. 2010 saw both the ‘Cleggmania’ phenomena and the chummy Rose Garden press conference between government leaders-elect Clegg and David Cameron. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg was named Time person of the year and the Arab Spring was proclaimed a social media revolution. Now, they share a similar ill-fate: disillusionment. Yet, both liberal centrism and Facebook are clearly to blame for their own misfortune, despite constantly looking beyond themselves for blame. They now share a broken relationship with those in who they once had trust. For Facebook, it is mostly over privacy, and for liberal centrists, policy.

Thirdly, both Clegg and Facebook share the idea of progress at the heart of their ideologies.

This is of course inherent to liberalism. But for Facebook, the idea is mixed in within techno-utopianism and libertarianism, in what media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron termed the California Ideology more than twenty years ago. This is what has spurred the growth of Silicon Valley. Yet, the strange thing about Clegg’s op-ed is that while claiming to start a new chapter, what he is selling is basically a reformist Californian ideology. It is this, Clegg offers, or else a damaging “tech-lash”.

Facebook and its astonishing power have thrived under the conditions that liberal centrism promotes: limited state intervention, a reticence to regulate, and pro-market policies. Now, the biggest potential challenges to its power come from exactly the kind of politics that Clegg has made a career out setting himself against: individuals on the right such as the conservative Republican senator-elect Josh Hawley, who has aggressively challenged Google and Facebook as Missouri Attorney General; or the established position on the global populist left to enforce corporate taxation. Deciding whether these are the correct solutions is exactly why we need a healthy and continuing democratic process. Not the words of a Vice President of Global Affairs and Communication.

Importantly, there is big difference between Facebook being harnessed to promote progressive liberalism and democracy, and being subject to these values. Clegg’s vision only promotes the former. Thus, nothing in Clegg’s op-ed suggests that Facebook needs to change fundamentally – only “work sensibly with governments, regulators, parliaments”. However, this assumes that a centrist politics inhabits those institutions – returning to the notion of positive politicisation. And yet populist movements on the right and left loom. Thus, Clegg’s vision fails to grasp the depth of the problem at hand, because it assumes the same conditions in which Facebook’s powers and problems have already grown.

Thus, even if Clegg did oversee reform nothing would change, because both he and Facebook are ideologically aligned. One hundred Sir Nick Cleggs, even if they wanted to, could not fix Facebook. In fact, they would probably make it worse.

Yes, on a personal level, Clegg no doubt cares about democracy. He should, since it is why he was on the job market. But whether Facebook does is another question, and there is very little evidence of this. That is the real threat.

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