On Sunday, Nick Clegg did a succession of interviews with some of the US’s biggest TV news shows. In his role as Facebook’s vice-president for global affairs and communications, he was defending his company after weeks of headlines about its latest crisis – this time involving Frances Haugen, a Facebook staffer turned whistleblower who had testified days earlier before a committee of the US Senate. The story centred on a stash of company documents that Haugen had given to the Wall Street Journal. The central allegation, which Facebook vehemently denies, was that the company had ignored its own research into the harms caused by some of its products in favour of the pursuit of “astronomical profits”.
Anyone au fait with the five grim years Clegg spent as the UK’s deputy prime minister would have had the familiar impression of someone emphasising his good intentions in almost impossible circumstances. His facial expression regularly expressed a sort of righteous exasperation; his words seemed to imply that if only his critics could grasp the facts, everything would quickly die down. Like any well-briefed politician, he emphasised a handful of statistics: the 40,000 content moderators Facebook employs, the $13bn (£9.5bn) it says it has spent cracking down on misinformation and hate speech; the company’s claim that the latter accounts for only five of every 10,000 Facebook posts.
“With a third of the world’s population on our platforms, of course you’re going to see the good, the bad and the ugly of human nature,” Clegg told MSNBC’s Meet the Press. “Our job is to mitigate and reduce the bad and amplify the good.” He once said very similar things about his party’s approach to going into political partnership with George Osborne and David Cameron.
Of course, most people in the US know nothing of his history as a British politician: the brief burst of “Cleggmania” in 2010; his fate-sealing U-turn on university tuition fees; and what the time he spent in coalition with the Conservatives did to the Liberal Democrats. In the US, Clegg is simply a very high-ranking Facebook executive, given the job of facing an increasingly hostile media in the absence of two more important players: Facebook’s founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and its longstanding chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg.
“When he appears on these Sunday shows, the question is: ‘Who is he trying to convince?” says the American journalist and writer Steven Levy, the author of the definitive book Facebook: The Inside Story. “Clearly, the people who are critics of Facebook aren’t going to be turned around by him saying: ‘Most of what we do is good.’ That argument doesn’t get traction. But people who work at Facebook need somebody going in to defend the company, because Mark and Sheryl have indicated, at least at this moment, that they do not have a taste for publicly defending the company they built.”
The to and fro between Facebook and its detractors looks like exactly the kind of polarised political battle the company is routinely accused of encouraging. Haugen says Facebook knew that Instagram, which it has owned and run since 2012, had a negative impact on the wellbeing of a large proportion of teenage girls, but carried on downplaying its effects. Instagram insists that her material is “focused on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light”, while Facebook maintains that correlation does not prove causation. In response to Haugen’s insistence that changes to Facebook’s News Feed algorithm in 2018 amplified divisive content and thereby contributed to political unrest, the company points to a blog Clegg wrote in March, including lines such as: “Facebook’s systems are not designed to reward provocative content. In fact, key parts of those systems are designed to do just the opposite.”
Levy says: “Someone is now presenting a case backed up with a lot of documents. Facebook can quite accurately say: ‘That’s just a selection of documents – they’re being cherrypicked.’ But the larger question is: ‘Is Facebook going to shift the core of its attitude?’ It probably could stem the bleeding if the right words came out of Mark or Sheryl’s mouth. But what I’m hearing from inside the company is they’ve had it with that. When Mark apologises, people just list all the other times he’s apologised. So, at least for now, he’s brazening it out.”
So far, Zuckerberg has only published a Facebook post – which, among other points, insists that the idea “that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being” is “just not true”. Levy says: “Someone’s got to speak for Facebook. And it’s Nick Clegg. So my bottom line is – and this is just supposition – that this job isn’t as much fun as he thought it was going to be.”
The Lib Dems lost 49 of their 57 seats in the House of Commons, leaving them with only eight MPs. Clegg was one of them, having held on to the constituency of Sheffield Hallam, a largely middle-class corner of the city that nudges the Peak District. The year after, Clegg – a one-time MEP who speaks English, French, Dutch, German and Spanish – reacted with horror to the result of the Brexit referendum. In 2017, he lost his seat to the Labour newcomer Jared O’Mara.
Meanwhile, in the very different environs of Menlo Park, in the Bay Area of northern California, the world’s biggest social media company had hit trouble. After the 2016 US election and the arrival in the White House of Donald Trump, the company was the focus of huge questions about misinformation, polarisation and online political meddling perpetrated by Russia. In the spring of 2018, Facebook was hit by a scandal surrounding the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which had harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters. At around the same time, outrage exploded about the role apparently played by Facebook in the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
The EU was making increasingly loud noises about the power of so-called big tech – and its avoidance of taxes. When the then prime minister, Theresa May, visited the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2018, she got most of the way to accusing the bosses of the big social media companies of standing by while their platforms were used “to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery or the spreading of terrorist and extremist content”. For Facebook, all this noise meant it had to change its approach to the policies that governed its content, as well as its public relations. It also had to prepare for an international wave of government regulation that was, sooner or later, going to break.
In the summer of 2018, Facebook’s then vice-president of communications and public policy, Elliot Schrage (“a bit of a Silicon Valley dinosaur,” according to one tech insider), announced that he was leaving the company. Sandberg and Zuckerberg quickly decided that his ideal replacement would be an experienced politician from Europe. They soon convinced a somewhat reluctant Clegg to fly to California for a conversation with Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. In Levy’s account, Clegg’s opening gambit was blunt: “Your fundamental problem is that people think you’re too powerful and you don’t care.”
One important human element in the story of Clegg’s recruitment is Richard Allan, AKA Lord Allan of Hallam, the former Liberal Democrat politician. Thanks to one of those coincidences that seem to tie together politics and business, he had held Clegg’s former Westminster seat until 2005, before joining Facebook in 2009 and becoming its director of European policy. He says he emphasised Clegg’s suitability for a senior role in conversations with Sandberg and Zuckerberg, and also encouraged his old friend (they have known each other since about 1997) to take the job.
Allan, who left Facebook in 2019 and spends part of his working life developing electric cars, says that being ejected from government left Clegg at a loose end. “He had a little thinktank going and he wrote a book. But I think he was always thinking: ‘I’d like to get my teeth into something.’ He was looking for a job where you make big and important decisions that affect a lot of people.”
Clegg’s appeal to Facebook, he says, centred on one fact: that he would come to Silicon Valley as an outsider. “It was really important to have somebody who could say: ‘That thing you’re doing may seem like a good thing, but when people in Europe hear about it, they’re going to think it’s terrible and slam you for it.’ Nick brings them that outsider’s voice. He’s not a tech utopian: ‘We just build this great stuff and the world’s going to be lovely.’ Nick comes from a much more typical position for European politicians: they’re rather sceptical about technology.”
Clegg is reportedly paid £2.7m a year and lives in a £7m house – complete with a pool, “outdoor fireplace” and hot tub – in the Atherton neighbourhood of San Francisco, often reckoned to have the highest property prices in the US. His wife, Miriam González Durántez, has talked about northern California as a paradise of second chances, saying: “People praise failure here in a way we don’t. It’s so healthy.”
Clegg was approached to be interviewed for this article, but Facebook’s PR team said participating in such coverage was not his policy. Instead, the company sent a set of bullet points for “background”, about why Clegg took the job and how he sees the role.
That email emphasised Clegg’s work in setting up the Facebook oversight board, a group of 20 high-powered people – including lawyers, academics and Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of the Guardian – that hears cases about the moderation of content referred to it by Facebook users and makes binding, precedent-setting decisions about them. (Interestingly, the board has just announced that it intends to hear testimony from Haugen.) The company’s spokesperson highlighted Clegg’s work at Facebook around the 2020 US elections, when he “steered [the] company-wide response and public comms on election integrity” and led the decision to pause the running of new political advertising in the week leading up to the election.
This brings us to another of Haugen’s allegations. She says that crucial safeguards that had been put in place to suppress political misinformation and the possibility of violence were quickly removed once voting had finished. “As soon as the election was over, they turned them back off, or they changed the settings back to what they were before, to prioritise growth over safety,” she told the CBS current affairs programme 60 Minutes. As she sees it, this change contributed to the riotous events in Washington DC on 6 January.
A little more than a week ago, Clegg appeared on the CNN programme Reliable Sources and denied – despite evidence to the contrary – that activity on Facebook had been at least partly responsible for what happened in and around the Capitol building. Any such suggestion, he said, was “ludicrous”. He went on: “The responsibility for the violence of January 6 lies squarely with the people who inflicted the violence and those who encouraged them, including President Trump.”
A few moments before, his interviewer had said something that has been endlessly quoted since: “A part of me feels like I’m interviewing the head of a tobacco company right now.”
‘I feel that, in the last two weeks, Nick Clegg’s standing has fallen, in terms of being a credible voice,” says Levy. “In a debating society, his arguments might have some traction, but given this situation where people are seeing this very compelling figure and calling her a hero, to say that this statistic or that statistic presents an alternative point of view to what she’s saying – it’s not compelling. People aren’t buying it.
“My impression of him is that he’s a super-smart guy and he must know that the mission he’s sent out on is not a desirable one – not one where he’s going to change people’s minds.”
Other voices are more sanguine. David Fitzpatrick, the author of The Facebook Effect, an acclaimed 2010 book about the company, says he would have liked to see “a more senior global leader” doing Clegg’s job; just before he was recruited, Kirkpatrick suggested Facebook might do its best to hire Barack Obama. But he says Clegg deserves at least qualified praise. “I feel he’s had a positive effect. I’m critical of him for not doing enough, and I think his interviews recently have been insufficient and very defensive, in a classic Facebook fashion. But he’s the best they’ve got, in terms of having good judgment about Facebook’s relationship to the world. If he weren’t there, my strong suspicion is that it would be even worse.”
It feels as if Clegg is in a similar position to the one he endured between 2010 and 2015 – facing derision and hostility, but doggedly assuring anyone who will listen that things are not nearly as bad as they think. The gargantuan salary and hot tub must help; so too the sense that, whatever he has to explain to the media, he has left Westminster behind and opened up a new chapter. “He’s in a tough position,” says Levy. “But he’s going to come out of this OK. I’m not worried about Nick Clegg. How long’s he been at Facebook now? Three years. His international profile and his profile within are up. Whatever happens, the Facebook experience will have been good for him.”
The price of a 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer is going up $10, and its supply is expected to be capped at seven million devices this year due to the ongoing global chip shortage.
Demand for components is outstripping manufacturing capacity at the moment; pre-pandemic, assembly lines were being red-lined as cloud giants and others snapped up parts fresh out of the fabs, and the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak really threw a spanner in the works, so to speak, exacerbating the situation.
Everything from cars to smartphones have felt the effects of supply constraints, and Raspberry Pis, too, it appears. Stock is especially tight for the Raspberry Pi Zero and the 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 models, we’re told. As the semiconductor crunch shows no signs of letting up, the Raspberry Pi project is going to bump up the price for one particular model.
The 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 will now once again set you back $45, an increase of $10 from its previous retail price. It used to be $45, then was brought down to $35 early last year when the 1GB model was discontinued. Now it’s back up again. This is the first time the project has hiked its prices, the trading arm of the Raspberry Pi Foundation said.
Don’t worry, however, the bump is said to be temporary and the module will eventually return to its original price of $35, company CEO Eben Upton announced on Wednesday.
The 4GB Raspberry Pi 4 and 8GB Raspberry Pi 4 versions will remain at $55 and $75, respectively. For those relying on a supply of $35 2GB boards, the project will bring back those 1GB Raspberry Pi 4 modules, priced $35.
“This provides a degree of choice: less memory at the same price; or the same memory at a higher price,” said Upton. 2GB for $45 or 1GB for $35. A choice, but not one people might expect.
“As many of you know,” he continued, “global supply chains are in a state of flux as we (hopefully) emerge from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. In our own industry, semiconductors are in high demand, and in short supply: the upsurge of demand for electronic products for home working and entertainment during the pandemic has descended into panic buying, as companies try to secure the components that they need to build their products … At Raspberry Pi, we are not immune to this.”
The project is expected to make around seven million of its computer boards total this year, maintaining the same level of production as last year as the pandemic took hold of the world. This is unlikely to increase much next year either, Upton said. Judging from his explanation, this figure is lower than hoped: “Despite significantly increased demand, we’ll only end up making around seven million units in 2021.”
Pis containing 40nm chips will feel the chip crunch the hardest over the next year, meaning there will be limited supplies of devices older than the current generation of Raspberry Pi 4, Raspberry Pi 400, or Compute Module 4.
“In allocating our limited stocks of 40nm silicon, we will prioritise Compute Module 3, Compute Module 3+, and Raspberry Pi 3B, and deprioritise Raspberry Pi 3B+ … Our guidance to industrial and embedded users of Raspberry Pi 3B+ who wish to optimise availability in 2022 is to begin migrating your designs to the 1GB variant of Raspberry Pi 4,” Upton said.
The biz expects to be able to make enough systems using 28nm silicon – namely the Raspberry Pi 4 and Compute Module 4 – over the next 12 months to hold their price… bar the aforementioned 2GB model.
“These changes in pricing are not here to stay. As global supply chain issues moderate, we’ll keep revisiting this issue, and we want to get pricing back to where it was as fast as we can,” Upton concluded. ®
UK headquartered Swoop was one of three finance companies to have received funding from RBS, which has previously given the start-up £5m in 2019.
Irish start-up Swoop Finance has received £2.5m from a fund established by banking giant RBS.
In 2019, it was awarded £5m by the banking firm, which accepted a £45bn bailout from the UK government at the height of the financial crisis in 2018. The bailout programme came with the condition that RBS would set up a £775m fund to boost competition in the region’s finance sector.
Swoop is one of three companies to have benefitted from that fund, with the others being UK finance companies Codat and Cashplus. The three start-ups will receive a combined £12.5m in grants from RBS.
Codat and Cashplus will both receive £5m from the fund.
Swoop was founded in 2017 by former KPMG chartered accountant and corporate financier Andrea Reynolds along with Ciarán Burke. Reynolds spoke at Silicon Republic’s Future Human event last year about the process of launching Swoop. She said she founded it after she spotted a gap in the market for a virtual “finance buddy” aimed at SMEs seeking financial advisers and lenders.
Today, Swoop is headquartered in the UK and it employs around 60 people. It recently launched in Canada, adding to its existing locations in Dublin, London and Sydney.
The fintech’s backers include Enterprise Ireland and Velocity. It has raised around €1.6m so far. Speaking last year, Reynolds said the pandemic’s digitisation of the finance industry – and most other industries – had benefitted the company.
She added that the ongoing changes in the industry would hopefully “democratise finance” and “open up opportunities” to companies seeking funding no matter where they are located.
“The future is that you won’t need to know who the lender is,” Reynolds said.
“All decisions will be made through your data and you’ll get those decisions instantly. So you could have a lender in Barcelona lending to a business in Ballyjamesduff, for example. It won’t matter where you are. It’s what your profile is and does it match to their algorithm.
“This means it’ll open up opportunities. It’ll democratise finance further because businesses, regardless of where they’re located, will not be disadvantaged. Everybody will have this at their fingertips,” she added.
Reynolds said she had seen “a 30pc increase in businesses moving online” during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I’m going to try to convince you that you should care about exactly how many people watched the moral panic-inducing hit Netflix series Squid Game. Yes, I know there’s a lot going on in the world. But bear with me: I think this really matters regarding how we understand our culture – and the balance of power in a media business where data is king.
(As a treat, if you stick with this newsletter then further down I’ll tell you about some of the biggest flops that Netflix would prefer you didn’t know about.)
In the past it was simple to find out how many people watched a popular television show. Audience figures for traditional television broadcasts have been produced in a similar way for decades. Research companies recruit a group of households considered to be statistically representative of the general population (in the UK this is done by Barb, in the US by Nielsen) and then their viewing habits are monitored, often using a box attached to their television set.
This data is then processed and used to produce industry-standard television ratings that can make or break careers. Journalists love these figures because you can make narratives out of them! It’s why you see headlines in news outlets about how half of the UK watched a football match, or how no one watched a new rightwing news channel.
These figures are made public, in part, because commercial television channels have advertisers. And advertisers need to know their adverts are actually being watched, so they need reliable and trustworthy numbers produced by a third-party organisation. Sure, this survey system is flawed, but broadly speaking it is equally flawed for everyone. You can tell if a programme on BBC is much more popular than a show on ITV, and you can tell if a particular drama massively outperformed what you’d expect.
Then Netflix and subscription streaming services came along. They don’t have advertisers. Their aim is to hook, retain, and encourage customers to keep using their service until it becomes so ingrained in their lives that they can never stop paying their monthly subscription fee. Core to working out how to do this is the data they collect on you.
Because Netflix knows exactly what shows you watch. They know how many seconds you lasted with each programme, when you got bored, what you put on instead when you got bored, and exactly what time of night you were watching that smutty foreign series. And it’s really not in Netflix’s interest to share this information with journalists, their rivals, or with the people who make the shows.
Which brings us back to the original question: How many people watched Squid Game? And why does it matter?
Well, if you believe Netflix, who occasionally drip-feed out positive ratings stories when it suits them, by last night Squid Game had been watched by 142 million households, making it one of the biggest hits ever.
But we’ve only got Netflix’s word to go on for that figure. And even then, Netflix currently defines a viewer as someone who watched the first two minutes of a show’s opening episode. Did you put Squid Game on for a few minutes to check out the hype then get bored? Well, you might be surprised to find you’re counted to be just as much a “fan” of the show as someone who watched all nine episodes back-to-back.
Journalistically, it’s a challenge. We end up having to accept Netflix’s word for the figures they provide because there’s simply no other option. It also enables the streaming outlets to selectively publish the narrative that they want to construct. It’s sexy and cool to trumpet your investment in high-end original drama. (And hell, Netflix really is investing incredible sums in high-end original drama!) It’s less sexy to admit that your critically acclaimed show was a ratings flop and people just want to watch endless repeats of Grand Designs.
What’s more, it warps our perceptions of audiences and what is popular in culture. Is a Netflix drama more popular than a BBC drama? Possibly. This may have enormous implications for the future of whether we still need the licence fee. Does the public really engage with Oscar-nominated state-of-the-nation films or secretly sit there watching another Adam Sandler release? With the culture wars grinding on, it’s probably worth knowing. What are the truly unifying television moments that bind a society together? It’s hard to be sure. Because we can’t get the data out of Netflix.
The truth is out there
Except … one small family business based in Bristol has worked out how to do just that. The staff at Digital i, an analytics firm, realised that while Netflix won’t release viewing figures, it does release data to members of the public about their personal viewing history.
(It’s true, you can see an overview of your recent Netflix viewing history, or you can download every bit of data that Netflix holds on you by visiting this link. In my case, it reveals that I was really binge-watching an awful lot of episodes of The Good Wife in 2015.)
Digital i realised that if they could convince thousands individuals to willingly hand over this personal viewing history in return for a small payment, the company can effectively create a statistically rigorous survey panel, then use this to create audience “ratings” for Netflix shows and sell this data to rivals. At the moment they have users signed up in five major European countries but they hope to expand globally.
“We’re trying to level the playing field for Netflix competitors,” said Sophia Vahdati from the company, who says their customers include the likes of BBC and ITV.
Her company has shone a light on one of Netflix’s biggest secret: how much of their audience is viewing endless repeats of old shows, because people binge high-profile original series in such a short period of time.
“The biggest thing that isn’t mentioned in the hype is how important sitcoms are to retaining Netflix subscribers,” she said, highlighting the availability of Brooklyn 99 and Big Bang Theory as just as core to Netflix’s offering as their buzzy acclaimed shows.
Here’s some of the findings of their Digital i’s data from its UK audience research that she shared with the Guardian:
British Netflix users spent more time watching old episodes of Friends in 2020 than watching big-budget original series the Crown.
The three most popular new releases in the UK during August were Clickbait (watched by 2.34m Netflix accounts), Hit & Run (2.1m households), and The Chair (1.64m). These are high ratings but Channel 5 can top them.
Sex Education Series 3 was released on the same day as Squid Game and performed just as well in Europe – but has had a fraction of the hype.
Shows such Bridgerton, Afterlife and The Queen’s Gambit were all hitting over 80% completion rates in the UK – meaning people were hooked and watched to the end of each series.
At the other end of the market, the five shows with the worst series completion rates were The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (just 35% of viewers finished it), What/If (45%), The Irregulars (53%), White Lines (56%), and Sex/Life (56%) – which explains why most of them were cancelled.
Any film that is watched to the end by 70% of people is a success. Martin Scorsese’s big-budget much-hyped Irishman? That struggled, on their metrics.
People now watch original series in a very short space of time – about a quarter of people who watched Squid Game finished it within two days.
Even though Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are not far apart in terms of signed-up users, Netflix dwarfs Amazon when it comes to people actually watching their content.
Oh and almost no one chooses to watch the credits nowadays. Sorry to everyone who made the programmes, we’ve already autoplayed the next episode.
So why does all this matter?
A lack of transparency changes the balance of of power when it comes to small companies negotiating with a global giant such as Netflix.
One independent producer who sold a film to Netflix suspects their release performed well, based on online reaction. But they told me that they just don’t know: “Netflix doesn’t usually give producers information about viewing figures of films they made – which is both frustrating and very disempowering for producers trying to negotiate funding for the next one, with them or anyone else.”
And for Squid Game? Digital i reckons 79% of Europeans with Netflix on their research panel watched at least one episode within the first fortnight of its release – with half making it all the way to the end in that time. So it really is a massive hit. Just perhaps not quite as big as Netflix’s own figures would suggest.
Last night, the streaming company announced that they would slightly change the metrics they use and drop the “two minutes watched” measure in favour of total hours watched. But it’s still in the company’s gift when they make the information public.
Vahdati says her company’s data shows how the streamer can selectively release data to shape the narrative about their output: “The originals are punchy, sharp and aesthetically innovative. But at the heart of it we haven’t become a nation who like to be challenged all the time with foreign-language dramas.”
Oh – and if you’re one of the many Squid Game viewers, then no spoilers please. I’m still only two episodes in.
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