Earlier this week, I asked the question - Does Mark Zuckerberg really want government to stage an intervention? It was prompted by the latest phase of the mea culpa comms strategy for the Facebook CEO, who after years of preaching the cause of social media firms being left to self-regulate, has now pivoted to a new guise as born-again evangelist for government regulation:
I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators.
What’s prompted this Damascene conversion? My speculation was the hand of Nick Clegg, Facebook’s new Apologist-in-Chief - or to give him his other title, Vice-President for Global Affairs and Communications. Clegg has been out and about spinning the plates in front of various legislators and media, insisting sternly that government’s got a lot to answer for by letting the likes of Facebook behave as they have:
Politicians will have to assume their own responsibility.
Clegg’s a slippery customer at the best of times, but he’s a good communicator, which Zuckerberg absolutely is not. But in any coherent PR campaign, eventually the flacks have to step aside and let the client do the talking, with fingers crossed that he or she sticks to the message.
Of course it’s handy if you can get the client to sit down in front of a ‘softball’ interviewer. In that respect, Clegg or one of his team played a blinder in getting Zuck a slot with George Stephanopolous on Good Morning America, where the hardline questioning - ahem - could have been written by the Facebook PR team itself:
Is the big message from you right now, Facebook gets it, we’re gonna change?
You know what George, I’ve an uncanny feeling that maybe that’s precisely what the message is, complete with soundbites and faux humility from the CEO. Frost vs Nixon, this is not.
Sure enough, Zuckerberg’s responses came out on cue, although one or two need a messaging workshop session before we hear them again, Nick. Try this for size:
I think, in retrospect, one of the big reflections was that I'm a very idealistic person, right?
Right, Zuck, you sure are. But you’re also someone who’s been left to play with a very powerful toy that’s done a lot of harm, harm that at present outweighs the potential good at least in terms of public perception. And it’s a toy that you can’t control, hence the sudden enthusiasm to pass the buck onto legislators and regulators.
The big problem with this ‘regulate me’ narrative that’s been constructed is that Zuckerberg can’t quite stick to the script without equivocating or adding provisos and theoretical elements. Take the barbaric white supremacist killings in New Zealand, live-streamed via Facebook. One solution to prevent a potential repeat of this obscenity would be to put a time-delay on live-streaming, in the same way that live TV shows do in case someone swears.
This isn’t something that Zuckerberg is keen on when asked is he thinks that such a facility would help:
You know, it might, in this case. But it would also fundamentally break what live-streaming is for people.
But back on message and the story is that Facebook - and Zuckerberg - have learned lessons from the scandals of the past year or so and have been campaigners for change:
I’ve spent most of the last few years trying to address these major social issues that we find ourselves at the centre of, so everything from policing harmful content, to preventing election interference, to making sure that we have strong data controls in place. And I’m proud of the progress that we’ve made. There’s a lot more to do. But we’ve made a lot of progress over the last couple of years.
Good, good - but here comes the equivocation - Facebook shouldn’t have to decided what counts as a political ad; regulators should be doing that:
One of the things that's unclear is what is the definition of a political ad? All of the laws primarily focus on a candidate and election, but that's not primarily what Russia tried to do. What we saw them doing was talking about divisive political issues. The goal wasn't to advance the issue forward, it was just to rile people up and be divisive.
Now, he might have a case to make here, but there are some things that don’t need third parties to tell him that they’re wrong - or shouldn’t need. Unfortunately Stephanopolous didn’t have time to grill Zuckerberg about Facebook’s alleged genocidal complicity in Myanmar or why the United Nations has called the firm’s role in assisting investigations “not nearly sufficient”.
But there were much more important topics to discuss - such as how much screen time Zuck's kids are allowed. It’s great being able to communicate with your children on social media, was the pat response. Almost as great presumably as being able to communicate the latest spin to America over breakfast.
Look, credit where it’s due. This was a nice piece of propaganda for Facebook - the tamest of interviews and one enthusiastically promoted by an overexcited network as Zuckerberg’s first network TV interview since the Cambridge Analytica scandal hit the headlines in March 2018.
Actually he’s appeared on quite a few TV interviews since then, but someone seems to have managed to convince ABC News that this was one hell of an exclusive they had on their hands! So well done to Mr Clegg or whoever it was that teed this BS up.
It was, of course, utterly unconvincing. Zuckerberg badly needs some media training and presentation skills, but as another part of the ongoing mea culpa mantra, it just about did the job it needed to do at this point in time, even if Stephanopolous - a great political journalist and interviewer - dropped the ball in terms of what needed to be asked. Not a great day for investigative journalism.