Why Facebook's pushing back

Zuckerberg's following a playbook pulled from British politics

Hello and welcome to Slow Build on a chilly morning in Cape Cod, where I’m attempting to cling to the last bits of summer. Let’s dig in.

The Nick Clegg effect

This is the week that could prove whether Nick Clegg’s three-year-old attempt to transform Facebook has paid off.

When I set out to profile Facebook’s newish head of both policy and communications in the spring of last year, frankly I knew little about him. The then-52-year-old Clegg had been the deputy prime minister of the UK from the Liberal Democratic Party, but that didn’t mean all that much, as I was only the slightest bit familiar with the role of deputy PM or what the Lib Dems stood for. In early interactions, Clegg was charming, and very British. But as time went on, he could be prickly, even combative when he felt Facebook was taking fire it should be taking. It was a lesson, he said, he took from his past life in British politics. “In the long run, it’s better to say your piece, have a point of view, be understood, even if you’re not liked,” he said in the course of an interview in Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters for a long profile that ran in POLITICO Magazine in May ‘20.

And Clegg did come off as not particularly concerned with being liked when he thought he was right. His political career had been built, I came to learn, on a rejection of polarization, and so it surprised some people — including one-time allies in the Hillary Clinton universe — when he joined Facebook. I pressed Clegg on it. “If I thought Facebook was the sole reason why people are getting so vituperative and angry with each other, you’re right, it would be an extremely peculiar choice,” he said, in a somewhat fiery exchange that didn’t make it into that piece. “I genuinely don’t believe that is the case.” Many politicians use a journalist’s first name to try to curry a human-to-human connection. Clegg does it to give notice he’s about to stick it to you a bit.

And Clegg brought that approach to Facebook. Explain, but don’t apologize unless you know you’ve really screwed up.

That’s part of what’s at work this week, as Facebook is pushing back against a series of critical reports in the Wall Street Journal. Particularly at issue is the idea that Facebook “knows” its Instagram platform is bad for teenage girls, with the Journal reporting on company slide decks that captured internal research that found that about a third of respondents felt worse about their bodies because of time spent on Instagram. Clegg is arguing that the slide decks just don’t support the gist of the Wall Street Journal’s coverage, and it’s a strategy being adopted more widely within Facebook. In the words of the company’s head of research, Pratiti Raychoudhury, “It is simply not accurate that this research demonstrates that Instagram is ‘toxic’ for teen girls.” And so, Clegg said this week that Facebook’s gearing up to release the decks, first to Congress and then the general public. Others in the company are arguing that Facebook should be praised for even tackling this sort of research in the first place.

Those decks are important because, well, the stories that Facebook and the Wall Street Journal are each telling about the scale, ambitions, and conclusions of the research don’t really square at all. For one thing, Facebook’s saying that it’s based on just 40 teens and that the one-third number is based only on a subset of teens who already self-identified as having body issues, which if true are significant limitations. But as ever with Facebook, it’s difficult to know what’s really going on without access to the data they’re seeing and using.

Of course, Facebook is a big operation with a lot of players who, at the same time, all answer up to Mark Zuckerberg. But there’s been a noticeable change in the Clegg era, even if getting that explain-don’t-apologize balance right isn’t easy.

(One added bit of inside baseball here: Instagram’s head of policy, Karina Newton, who is quoted in coverage now trying to navigate that exact balance, spent about a dozen years working as an aide and advisor to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been enormously critical of Facebook. Small world.)

Is all this a good strategy for Facebook? From the company’s perspective, it’s at least a way of making use of the fact that its products are still enormously popular with the wider public as it tries to counter the disdain and even anger it gets capitals like Washington, London, and New Delhi.

But whether after years in the works it is truly paying off is something we’re just beginning to be able to judge. It’s put up or shut up time for Clegg. And others in the tech industry, at least, are watching to see if, when it comes to D.C. at least, it indeed makes sense at some point to stop trying to get along.


Twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom

Having concluded he’s so done with Democrats he’s forming his own party, Andrew Yang has figured out what to call it.

Slow Build, Sept. 10th, 2021:

“Five bucks [the name] includes ‘Forward’ in there somehow… [T]hey always do.”

The Hill, Sept. 23rd, 2021:

“Yang's new party will be called 'The Forward Party'”

Yang’s trying to seize the fed-up-with-system, technocratic technocratic mantle that so many others have tried before to grab, and failed. So, smart money’s on that happening here. But Yang has a proven ability to capture outsized attention.

Still, it’s difficult not to think of this great “Simpsons” clip, when Kodos, an alien, disguises himself as Bill Clinton and runs for president:

Trump’s TikTok weirdness

President Donald Trump’s attempt last summer to force the sale of the Chinese company TikTok to an American company over security concerns was an enormously odd story to try to cover. We tried to figure out how to contextualize an American president demanding a vig as Trump did when he said “we want and we think we deserve to have a big percentage of that price coming to America, coming to the Treasury” — something Trump compared to the “key money” a prospective tenant might pay a landlord to lock down a property. We scrambling to report out, could the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a.k.a. CFIUS, actually require such a thing? But really, some of the steam was taken out of the story, I think, because reporters were by then, in what was looking to be the waning days of the Trump presidency, worn down by attempting to fit what he did into any sort of framework of how the government actually works.

Now Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is out saying the whole thing was super weird on the inside, too. Microsoft was, for a time, looking to take over TikTok’s U.S. operation. That effort was “the strangest thing I’ve ever sort of worked on,” Nadella said earlier this week. Same, buddy.

Longread rec

Max Chafkin’s new book "Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley's Pursuit of Power" is being excerpted in New York Magazine. In the piece, Chafkin writes about the enigmatic and controversial tech world figure’s '“origin story,” including Thiel getting pulled over as a 20-year-old while speeding down California’s Route 17 in his Volkswagen:

He pulled the Rabbit over, rolled down the window, and listened as a state trooper asked if he knew how fast he was going. The other young men in the car — relieved to have been stopped but also afraid of how this might play out — looked at each other nervously.

Thiel addressed the statie coolly in his usual uninflected baritone. “Well,” he said, “I’m not sure if the concept of a speed limit makes sense. It may be unconstitutional. And it’s definitely an infringement on liberty.”

Unbelievably, the trooper seemed to accept this. He told Thiel to slow down and have a nice day. Even more unbelievably: As soon as he drove out of sight, Thiel hit the gas pedal again, just as hard as before. To his astonished passengers, it was as if he believed that not only did the laws of California not apply to him — but that the laws of physics didn’t either. “I don’t remember any of the games we played,” said the teammate who was riding shotgun, a man who is now in his 50s. “But I will never forget that drive.”

Read the full thing here.

Your Scary Thought for the Day

Public commenting — like the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System — remains sorta state-of-the-art when it comes to engaging regular Americans in the nitty-gritty regulatory work of the federal government. It’s already being gamed, and there’s little reason to think folks aren’t busy working at getting better gaming it.

The federal cats of Zoom

FTC commissioner Christine Wilson’s cat joined the proceedings during a House Antitrust Subcommittee hearing this week.

Cat’s just probably trying to figure out if she’s getting fur-loughed.