Published On: Mon, Oct 22nd, 2018

Jennifer Wells: Facebook ‘friends’ a European expert. Will it help Mark Zuckerberg?

Sheryl Sandberg is excited that Nick Clegg is joining Facebook.

She said so on Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg liked her post. Thumbs up!

I feel sorry for Mr. Clegg. Gosh, he’s going to move his entire family to Menlo Park, which is going to feel strange to the onetime MP from Sheffield Hallam. I suppose it looks rather globaliste for the social media monster to have nabbed the erstwhile U.K. politician, no doubt for a gazillion bucks. His resume appears so on point, what with his time in Brussels, his leadership of the Liberal Democrats, his coalition with David Cameron — he was deputy prime minister, for Pete’s sake — his Dutch mother/Spanish wife/half-Russian father background, his current work on the Brexit dilemma. He speaks five languages!

In this context it seems so, well, flaccid to hear of Clegg’s latest title: vice-president, global affairs and communications.

We know that Mark Zuckerberg’s company is in ever deepening trouble on the global affairs front. Pick your Congressional hearing/EU testimony/Rohingya slaughter/fake news/election interference/stolen data/something about only 30 million people having their access tokens stolen by hackers. (Facebook’s defence: it could have been worse!)

So no surprise the company wants to massage the message, and who better to run that file than a politician who gets how Europe works. (Europe doesn’t like Mr. Zuckerberg.)

We will await the first hint of trouble.

Oh, interesting, it’s already here!

Why did Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, announce the hire? Wasn’t it silly of Zuckerberg to “like” the announcement, making the appointment sound so middle school. And why didn’t the company pre-empt Sandberg’s note by issuing a formal press release? And for that matter, why, at least as of Friday morning, had Zuckerberg said nothing? He did appear in a photograph posted by Sandberg of the new corporate threesome, but come on.

This bothers me. It bothers me because Zuckerberg already bears the reputation of an autocrat/dictator who controls the company through special-class shares and who — wasn’t this just recently? — lost the WhatsApp founders reportedly because the organizational reporting structure had changed and the WhatsApp guys no longer had direct access to the king.

I guess the king grew weary of the founders’ concerns about protection of personal data.

Even though Nick Clegg is used to working within the realm of a monarch, I just can’t imagine he will be comfortable as a direct report to, OK, let’s call him a czar.

Oh, this makes sense: he’s not! He will be reporting to Sheryl Sandberg, reaffirming that Zuckerberg takes no one’s corporate counsel except, allegedly, Sandberg’s. The COO certainly can stay on message. Recall her appearance last month on Capitol Hill where once again the ethos of Facebook was trotted out like a jingle from a soft drink commercial — making the world a better place, etc.

In announcing Clegg’s hire on Facebook, Sandberg acknowledged that the company is on a “critical journey,” albeit one with loads of friends. “Every day people use our apps to connect with family and friends and make a difference in their communities. If we can honor the trust they put in us and live up to our responsibilities, we can help more people use technology to do good.”

One of the first responders on Facebook questioned that outcome. “Sheryl, you must help us, please! WhatsApp took millions of dollars to spread fake news in brazilian elections. You must do something!” That reference is to allegations that the campaign of far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, described by the Guardian as a “pro-torture, dictatorship-praising populist,” has used WhatsApp to spread fake news and discredit opposition candidate Fernando Haddad.

Just another day in the Facebook saga.

The intractable Zuckerberg remains fortified against all comers by those aforementioned shares, and his antiquated governance structure that has him performing the dual roles of chairman and CEO.

The battlements are crumbling. Earlier this month I wrote about Trillium Asset Management and its shareholder proposal to split the two corporate functions because, you know, this isn’t the ’80s. “The complaints over shaky corporate governance at Facebook will only grow,” I wrote then. This week, the state treasurers from Illinois, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, along with the New York City Pension Funds, joined with Trillium in pushing for change.

“They have a social and financial responsibility to be transparent,” said New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer in a release, addressing Facebook’s “outsized” role in society and the U.S. economy. “That’s why we’re demanding independence and accountability in the company’s boardroom.” As trustee of the city pension funds, Stringer oversees $ 197 billion (U.S) in assets under administration.

Zuckerberg can’t keep ducking this. Technically his share position gives him cover. But suasion and public reputation count for a lot too. Eventually he will have to wake up to the realization that he’s on the wrong side of this.

I wonder what Nick Clegg thinks. Perhaps he can see the future, and an imagined Facebook of tomorrow that will be more suited to his reputation.

Jennifer Wells is a business columnist based in Toronto. Reach her on email: jenwells@thestar.ca

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Jennifer Wells: Facebook ‘friends’ a European expert. Will it help Mark Zuckerberg?