Mark Zuckerberg never wanted much to do with Washington.
It’s easy to forget it’s been less than four years since he was all but dragged kicking and screaming to his first Congressional hearing on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, after first insisting he wasn’t the right guy for the job.
And maybe he wasn’t. In the years since Zuckerberg has taken a more public role in navigating the company’s many global policy problems, things have arguably only gotten worse for the company formerly known as Facebook.
Now, it seems, Zuckerberg wants out. On Wednesday, he announced that Nick Clegg would become the company’s new president of Global Affairs, reporting directly to Zuckerberg and running point on all of the company’s policy work globally. “We need a senior leader at the level of myself (for our products) and Sheryl [Sandberg] (for our business) who can lead and represent us for all of our policy issues globally,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post on Facebook.
As far as title changes go, it’s a negligible one. Clegg had already been more or less doing this job since 2018 when he joined the company. The shift says far less about Clegg than it does about how both Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s focus has shifted within the company.
Zuckerberg made no secret of the fact that he hopes this change will free him up to focus on the company’s products. “As Nick takes on this new leadership role, it will enable me to focus more of my energy on leading the company as we build new products for the future,” he wrote.
That’s no small task. Zuckerberg is now in a position he hasn’t really been in before, with user numbers falling on Facebook, investors losing faith and the company’s ad model struggling under new privacy changes. The transition into a metaverse company — whatever that ends up meaning — isn’t just a rebrand to escape from so many years of bad press; it’s a life raft. Navigating that transition is a whole lot trickier when you’re stuck litigating and apologizing for the mistakes of your first 18 years.
As for Sandberg, it’d be easy to see Clegg’s rise as coming at her expense. And in some ways, of course it is. She was, after all, Facebook’s face in Washington during that rocky period between 2016 and 2018, navigating the Russian propaganda crisis and the fallout of the 2016 election. But since that time, it’s been clear both inside of the company and outside of it that Sandberg has ceded some of that territory to Clegg.
“She’s made a clear effort to be less involved in policy over the last few years,” said Crystal Patterson, a former public policy manager for Facebook, who left the company after seven years last fall. “I know externally it looked like she was put in a corner, but I felt like she was happy to take a lower profile and focus on other things after the 2016 mess.” Patterson called Clegg "the best thing they have going in leadership."
It now falls to Sandberg to figure out how the Facebook business model will translate in its new AR- and VR-focused future, even as Zuckerberg works on developing products themselves. In a comment on Zuckerberg's post, Sandberg said as much, writing, "The next few years will be a crucial time for our company and our industry as new rules for the internet are written all over the world, and as we set out on our journey to help build the metaverse."
Clegg's promotion will give him the gravitas he needs to "get higher-level meetings," said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s former public policy director, who left the company last spring after 10 years. Plus, she said, “It makes sense given Mark and Sheryl's lack of interest in policy.”
At least, that’s how it would all work in theory. In practice, Clegg’s promotion may not end up being the magical escape chute Zuckerberg and Sandberg want it to be. At least, not in the big moments. If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that when it comes to Facebook, lawmakers are rarely interested in talking to the clean-up crew. More often, they want a word with the people who actually made the mess.