When I began covering Silicon Valley for The Economist in 2003, Google was not yet a public company and Facebook, YouTube and Twitter did not even exist. By the time I moved on to my next beat in 2009, these firms and their ilk had already changed our world. As a journalist I will always be grateful that I had a chance to cover this — and the word fits — “revolution.” But as a Mensch, I was always ambivalent about it.
I first profiled Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, in 2007. The interview was one of the most awkward I recall having. He had been told by his PR handler to tell me how he admired Achilles, probably because his handler knew I liked “The Iliad.” So that’s what he told me. Throughout, I had the distinct impression that I was talking to an autistic person.
At first, my stories about Facebook and Twitter were a hard sell to editors in distant headquarters — technophobes who had no idea what a social network was or why we should write about it. Then, seemingly overnight, they were clamoring for more, more, more. Like any red-blooded journalist, I fed these appetites. But privately, I had misgivings.
Around 2012, I finally acted on these misgivings and deleted my own Facebook account. My motivation was not primarily fear about how Facebook would use my data. Rather it was a desire to simplify and unclutter my life. I had noticed first-hand what I had also been reading in research papers: that being on Facebook makes people less happy, not more. It has something to do with the voyeurism of seeing all those curated photos of your friends’ toes on beaches.
Nor did I like the way my “social graph” kept regressing into the gutter. I yearned for the old-fashioned way of deciding who in my life was or was not a “friend.” I was also keenly aware how boring I was on Facebook. Out of some instinct of discretion, I shared little about me, in a medium where sharing was the point. Simultaneously, I was horrified by how much others were sharing with me. Did this old yoga acquaintance really need to show all of us every sonogram in her developing pregnancy? Pregnancies can go wrong, you know. I’m happy to get the card if it goes well.
We allowed Facebook deep into our lives, like a Trojan Horse.
This was my prehistory as I absorbed this week’s “scandal” about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. Both companies behaved despicably. But to all those righteous ones who have been oversharing all these years and are now professing themselves shocked — shocked! — that Facebook would ever do such a thing, I have a message: Get real. This is what we — the press and the Silicon Valley digerati — were warning about all along. But we were Cassandras. You were the Trojans who weren’t willing to listen. So you allowed Facebook deep into your life, like a Trojan Horse.
What next? Understandably, there is now a groundswell from America to Britain and beyond for more regulation. And regulation may eventually be needed. What worries me is that this is also grist for German mills. That’s because Germans, as Handelsblatt Global has covered in some depth, have a well-known obsession with their data privacy. This predisposes them to overshooting, by rushing into ill-advised and disproportionate legislation of the internet and social media. That in turn is one reason why German firms lag far behind in digital innovation generally.
Right on cue, Chancellor Angela Merkel has now dispatched her chief of staff to draw the consequences from Cambridge Analytica/Facebook. Expect the usual: committees, hearings, commissions, maybe laws. So I asked Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin, to take a first stab at what a sane and proportionate policy response would be. Ms. Merkel, please read it.
While the pols are at it, however, the rest of us also have some work to do. Social networks are a part of modern life. But why are we acting as though we no longer had free will? We still have brains to evaluate the garbage Facebook feeds us about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. We still have thumbs to turn the device off. We still have the moxie — don’t we? — to delete our accounts. I’ve never regretted deleting mine.
Who knows? Maybe I can, one day, tell my grandchildren that I was there at Facebook’s creation, and then again at its demise. If so, good riddance.
Andreas Kluth is editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global. You can reach him at email@example.com