The Facebook executive Nick Clegg took a damage-limitation tour of US political talkshows on Sunday, but remained evasive over questions about the social media giant’s contribution to the deadly attack on the US Capitol on 6 January this year.
The former British deputy prime minister, now Facebook vice-president of global affairs, was responding to a barrage of damaging claims from the whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Appearing before a Senate committee this week, Haugen said a proliferation of misinformation and unchecked hate speech on Facebook helped encourage the pro-Trump mob that stormed Congress, seeking to overturn the election result.
Haugen will also meet with the House committee investigating the Capitol attack.
Clegg insisted individuals were responsible for their own actions on 6 January, and would not say if he believed Facebook bore any responsibility for amplifying toxic messaging such as Donald Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election.
“Given that we have thousands of algorithms and millions of people using it, I can’t give you a yes or no answer to individual personalised feeds each person uses,” Clegg told CNN’s State of the Union.
“Where we see content we think is relevant to the investigation, to law enforcement, of course we cooperate. But if our algorithms are as nefarious as some people suggest, why is it that those systems have reduced the prevalence of hate speech on our platforms to as little as 0.05%?”
A week ago, Clegg blasted suggestions that social media contributed to the insurrection as “ludicrous”, and strongly resisted claims that Facebook ignored problems on its platform.
But after Haugen’s searing testimony that Facebook was harming children and damaging democracy globally in its quest to place “astronomical profits before people”, Clegg cut a more contrite figure on CNN, NBC’s Meet the Press and ABC’s This Week.
He outlined steps he said the company was taking to “reduce and mitigate the bad and amplify the good”, including new tools to direct users, especially teenagers, away from harmful content on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. He also said Facebook was open to discussions over stricter regulation including internet privacy legislation.
“We will, of course, seek to make ourselves ever more transparent, so people can hold us to account,” Clegg told ABC. “We understand that with success comes responsibility, comes criticism, comes scrutiny.
“We’re going to give new tools to adults, to parents, so they can supervise what their teens are doing online. And we want to give users more control. We give users the ability to override the algorithm, to compose their own newsfeed. Many people who use Facebook in the US and elsewhere want to see more friends, less politics.”
Pressure is growing in Congress for tighter restrictions on social media companies, including moves to break up Facebook dating from the Trump administration.
The Democratic Massachusetts senator Ed Markey said last month Facebook was “just like big tobacco, pushing a product that they know is harmful to the health of young people, pushing it to them early, all so Facebook can make money”.
Clegg said legislators should step in.
“We’re not saying this is a substitution of our own responsibilities,” he told NBC, “but there are a whole bunch of things that only regulators and lawmakers can do. I don’t think anyone wants a private company to adjudicate on these difficult trade-offs between free expression on one hand and moderating or removing content on the other.
“Only lawmakers can create a digital regulator … we make the best judgment we possibly can but we’re caught in the middle. Lawmakers have to resolve that themselves.”
Amy Klobuchar, a senator from Minnesota and former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, welcomed Clegg’s stance but said social media companies had missed the opportunity to govern themselves.
“I appreciate that he is willing to talk about things but I believe the time for conversation is done, the time for action is now,” she told CNN. “If they’re willing to sign on I’m all for it, but so far we haven’t seen that.