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The Biden-Clegg connection: how the former deputies find themselves bound together ahead of election

Michael Cogley
·6-min read
Facebook's moderation of a negative story about Joe Biden's son has prompted difficult questions - Telegraph/Telegraph
Facebook's moderation of a negative story about Joe Biden's son has prompted difficult questions - Telegraph/Telegraph

In 2018, when Joe Biden appeared on Sir Nick Clegg’s post-Brexit podcast “Anger Management”, the ex-Lib Dem leader was glowing of his former opposite number.

“Of all the people I met in Government, I genuinely never met someone who had so much wisdom, and so much warmth,” he said of the former US vice president.

Sir Nick, who is now Facebook’s global head of policy and communications, has much in common with Biden: both deputy heads of government during the overlap between Barack Obama's presidency and David Cameron's Coalition government, and seemingly friends ever since.

Now, after four years of careful bargaining and quiet concessions to President Donald Trump and his Republican allies, Facebook may soon have to explain itself to a Democratic Party that blames its services for stoking extremism, enabling discrimination and putting Trump in the White House in 2016.

If there is a hope of rapprochement - as very well there might be, given Facebook's overwhelmingly progressive workforce - it is likely to begin with the one-time MP for Sheffield Hallam. 

"It absolutely helps," says Steve Goldstein, a former top official under Presidents Bush and Trump who has met both Sir Nick and Biden and dealt with Facebook in his official duties. 

"When he was hired it was a bit of a surprise, because they hired somebody from outside the United States, but they also hired a former politician. I'm sure it was done to emphasise the global nature of the corporation... looking back on it, it was a very smart move on Facebook's part."

Biden and Sir Nick enjoyed their time together as deputy heads of government. After securing the White House in 2012 with Obama, the then Vice President thanked his opposite number for his “friendship” and praised the “close and enduring relationship” between the UK and the US.

A year later, Sir Nick used Biden’s visit to the UK to stress the importance of Britain remaining in the European Union. During the visit, he declared that the US vice-president was a “real friend of the UK”.

The pair were also founding members of the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, which launched in May 2018. The commission pulled together public and private sector leaders to help identify and plug gaps that could be exposed during elections

Profile | Joe Biden
Profile | Joe Biden

At the time, commission co-chair and former NATO chief and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Ramussen described the Western world as being far too “vulnerable” to disruptive Russian efforts around elections. Five months later, Sir Nick joined Facebook.

None of which is to say he has been unable to work with the Republicans. On the contrary, Sir Nick - these days living in Silicon Valley and looking perfectly comfortable in the local uniform of slacks and a hoodie - has presided over not only an almost presidential increase in his boss Mark Zuckerberg's public presence, but substantial private outreach to American conservatives.

Facebook's upper ranks are also largely liberal, inviting suspicions of Left-wing bias which were only exacerbated by its decision last week to clamp down on a negative news story about Biden and his son Hunter. The company's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg is a former Clinton official, while its employees have donated far more to Democrats than Republicans. 

Even so, its Washington lobbying operation, run by former Bush official Joel Kaplan, is known for its strong Republican bent. And over the past two years Zuckerberg has worked hard to build ties with the Right, dining privately with the President and various media figures, as well as reportedly swapping WhatsApp messages with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. 

While much of that was organised by Kaplan, there are no reports of Sir Nick getting in its way. The former deputy prime minister has zealously defended policies that have incensed Democrats, such as the exemption of politicians' posts from Facebook's outside fact-checking programme.

"He's not shy. He gives it his all!" says Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who is now one of its most relentless critics. "He's hitched his wagon to this particular horse... I hope that the money they're paying him is enough, because this experience is going to leave a mark. Defending the indefensible is a career, but there are real costs to doing that."

McNamee, however, also perceives a marked change in Facebook's actions of late. The company has all but banned the pro-Trump QAnon movement, as well as banning Holocaust denial and blocking the spread of the Hunter Biden story. 

"We've been asking for those things for a long time and any one of them would have been surprising," says McNamee. "And I think the important question is, why now?" 

Many have speculated that Facebook is seeing Biden's rosy poll numbers and is scrambling to appease a potential Democratic government. In that instance, Goldstein expects that Facebook would crack down more than it has before, taking less absolutist free speech stances, and hiring extra Democrat lobbyists in DC. 

"They'll have a little more access than they'll have had previously," he says. If anything, he thinks the company should beware of over-compensation: "What's good today might not be good in two years".

Doubts remain over how much sway Sir Nick would have actually had in shutting down the Hunter Biden story, which made fresh allegations against Biden’s son and his dealings with a Ukrainian energy company. A source familiar with Facebook’s fact-checking process claimed that the company treated the story no differently to any other that had received serious questions about its veracity.

With stories of this magnitude, the source said, Facebook’s leaders are informed but the decision they make is more around whether or not an exception should be granted from its fact-checking process.

Profile | Nick Clegg
Profile | Nick Clegg

Typically, disputed stories go through a period of being reduced in exposure while fact-checkers determine its veracity. In the case of the Ukrainian allegations the decision to reduce its exposure was not “pro-Biden, nor was it pro-Trump”, according to the source.

Sir Nick himself has insisted that Biden's harsh criticism of Facebook earlier this year, when it chose not to censor a deceptively edited video featuring him, was "not remotely" a concern. No "serious observer", Sir Nick said, would have expected Facebook to act otherwise.

"It's always that way in Washington: where do your friendships end and your political relationships start?" says Goldstein. "You're dealing with two politicians who are very smart. It doesn't mean there isn't purity in the relationship... [but] the hallmark of a really good politician is someone who's able to maintain the relationships that are necessary to help them move forward."

Still, he concludes: "Is Facebook happy right now that they hired Nick Clegg? Well, we'll see in two weeks. But I would guess that they are."