WSJ x Capital in English

Soziale NetzwerkeWarum war Facebook so einfach zu kapern?

Facebook-CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook-CEO Mark ZuckerbergGetty Images

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What do Facebook Inc. the Soviet Union and the European Reformation have in common? They all consist of networks that formed quickly by leveraging new communications technologies and then just as swiftly were taken over by a handful of people who consolidated their influence over millions of people.

Some historians and scientists are coming to understand that the internet—and specifically Facebook—are only the latest examples of the revolution-spawning networks, common throughout history, that give rise to hierarchies that both empower and oppress.

In an indictment released Friday, special prosecutor Robert Mueller described a scenario in which Russian operatives allegedly exploited Facebook with the intent of influencing the 2016 U.S. election. That Facebook could be used in this way should be no surprise, because research has shown that the downside of powerful, centralized networks is their susceptibility to being subverted and exploited.

As recently as the Arab Spring in 2011, sober-sounding intellectuals could plausibly argue that the disruptive force of the internet, capable of upending old hierarchies, would provide the means to spread democracy and grant new freedoms.

That view, said historian Niall Ferguson, author of the 2018 book “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, From the Freemasons to Facebook,” was born of an all-too-common mistake: the failure to appreciate that, even when new technologies come along, it’s still humans who are using them.

“From 1990s slogans about how we’re all ‘netizens’ to the recent Facebook talk of a global community, we’ve heard this argument ad nauseam,” Mr. Ferguson said. “And I think it has slightly robbed us of our critical faculties.”

A hierarchy is just a special kind of network where some nodes have higher centrality—the ones through which others have to communicate or pass

Niall Ferguson

Understanding why this happens—why networks start out as distributed power structures but quickly become vertical hierarchies capable of rapidly disseminating both information and propaganda—requires a little network theory and some historical perspective.

Take the Bolshevik revolutions of 1917, for instance. The coalition of the armed forces and the industrial workforce that overthrew the czar was, essentially, a distributed network. But the circle of insiders who subsequently consolidated power over the Communist Party—whose control peaked with the rule of Joseph Stalin—is the hierarchy.

“A hierarchy is just a special kind of network where some nodes have higher centrality—the ones through which others have to communicate or pass,” Mr. Ferguson said.

Technology usually plays a role in revolutionary change. In Russia, it was telegraphs and railroads. In the case of the Reformation, the printing press allowed for the rapid spread of the Bible in local languages. The distributed network of believers posed a sudden threat to the established Catholic hierarchy, yet once Protestantism achieved critical mass, its own hierarchy arose.

“Luther thought that it would be great if everyone was connected and could read the Bible in the vernacular,” Mr. Ferguson said. What Luther didn’t anticipate is what would come next—nearly 200 years of civil war.

“What happened in the 16th century in Europe is visible in American politics today, where you have two pretty hostile and separate spheres of conservatives and liberals who are scarcely communicating across a largely vacated middle,” Mr. Ferguson said.