Nick Clegg is right. Facebook isn’t the problem. He is

Remainers want to blame social media for all the world’s problems. Brexiteers want to blame the liberal elite. Fortunately, everyone can now agree to blame Nick Clegg

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Monday 28 January 2019 16:08
Nick Clegg reveals Facebook has hired him as head of global affairs

Every so often, Sir David Attenborough is asked why he thinks it is that he has come to be the most universally trusted person in the United Kingdom and, perhaps, the world. He has a tendency to make the same, short point in his reply.

He has never advertised a product in his life. He has never done PR for anyone. He has turned down offers that would reach surely into the tens of millions, because, and I paraphrase here, that if you say something because someone has paid you to say it, eventually, people won’t trust what you say when you’re not being paid.

We turn, at this point, to Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom, and now vice president of Facebook (always the bridesmaid, Nick…), who was in Brussels on Monday lunchtime to stand next to a big blue sign with the word Facebook on it, and talk about how great Facebook is, and how all the bad things you might have heard about it simply aren’t true.

Nick Clegg is, at least in my opinion, a person of total integrity.

He made the right decision to go into coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010. He made the right, but brutalising choice to pay for that decision by breaking his promise on tuition fees, from which he knew his reputation would never fully recover.

His mistake, in my view, in his five years in very high office was to spend too long apologising to Liberal Democrats for the compromises his party was making to ensure the country was governed during a financial crisis, and not enough selling the successes of his party, principally its restraining influence over the Conservatives, which would become devastatingly clear incredibly quickly after he was gone.

In the wake of the 2015 election, Clegg was dejected, and was known to say to friends that reputation is everything in politics, and he was not sure whether he still had his. I found this startling, not least because it wasn’t true. The case for Clegg was strong.

But the Nick Clegg that defends Facebook is simply an impossible iteration of Nick Clegg to defend. The sheer convenience of it. This is a man who would gladly die on the hill of preventing the introduction of ID cards, which are a fact of life in most EU countries, and yet here he is, finding his interests and allegiances suddenly aligned with the High Priests of Surveillance Capitalism, a relatively new invention that is burning down the world.

He spoke in Brussels of the story of Facebook that you all know, that “doesn’t pay any tax”, that is “responsible for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump”. That, he said, “is not the story of Facebook that I recognise”.

But it is the Facebook that keeps vast files of data on all its users, that encourages you to install messenger software on your phone that monitors and stores data on the phonecalls you have made. That makes it incredibly difficult for you to force it to delete the huge volume of records it has on you.

It is anathema to liberal values. But, Clegg reckons, it is changing.

Facebook, he said, is coming to realise that it needs to restrain itself. “It is now entering a new era of reform and change,” which, fortuitously enough, came at the very moment a former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom with impeccable liberal credentials found that a new job in California with a vast seven-figure salary might be quite fun.

Facebook may very well not be responsible for Brexit and Trump, but its use in abysmal goings on in the Philippines, in Brazil and in Myanmar cannot be questioned. In the Philippines, under Rodrigo Duterte, Facebook is the internet. It is reported that 97 per cent of Filipinos who are online have Facebook accounts.

For those of us who believe in centrist politics, who share practically all of the values of a liberal democrat, these are troubling times. Heads have been scratched for years now about why so many millions of voters appear to be running away to the margins, away from the values that have held great countries together for decades. The urge to blame technology is strong: poor quality information and sociopathic algorithms designed to foster a chemical addiction to untruth and anger.

But Facebook Clegg makes the simpler answer the harder one to reject. That people have “had enough” of some “metropolitan elite”, that “the system isn’t working for them” and so on. These things are meant to be myths, but the sight of Nick Clegg doing Facebook’s bidding is as powerful a recruiting sergeant to them as you are likely to see.

He is certainly being paid well enough for his services. Perhaps his arguments sounded more convincing when he does them to the bedroom ceiling, wide eyed at 2am. But, with no shortage of regret, it is hard to see how even his greatest admirers will be able to find a way to take him seriously again.

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