To see how the power of nation- or globe-spanning networks can be exploited, look at China’s transformation of its internet into the world’s most sophisticated machine for censorship, surveillance and social control.
The distributed nature of the internet should have posed a major threat to a country like China. As internet activist John Gilmore once said, “The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
Recognizing this, China built its portion of the internet from the start as a hierarchy in which internet companies can only rent bandwidth from government-controlled service providers. In other words, all traffic is routed through a limited number of powerful, central nodes.
Even when networks aren’t architected for this kind of control, they tend to organize themselves in ways that lead to disproportionate influence by a handful of their members. When any new person or entity joins a network, it is likely to attach to the most visible hubs, making them even more influential, said Albert-László Barabási, a theoretical physicist and a founder of the field of network science.
In just a few years, Facebook became the world’s most dominant conduit of news and information but said it would remain neutral to what spread through its channels. Meanwhile, a handful of engineers were building algorithms to decide which of its 2.2 billion users would see what.
By remaining agnostic about which influencers rose to popularity, and helping them along by building recommendation and newsfeed algorithms to enhance that popularity, Facebook allowed Russia to rapidly gain influence on the site, said Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociologist at Yale who studies social networks.
The company has taken steps to address these problems, but it’s Facebook’s “original sin”—to optimize for engagement above all else as a servant of advertisers as much as of users—that is at the root of its issues, Dr. Christakis said.
According to Dr. Christakis, “You can connect a group of people one way and they’re kind, and cooperation spreads. But if you take the same group of people and connect them in a different way, they’re mean sons of bitches, and they’re cruel to each other.”
Facebook isn’t the only internet power structure like this, of course. All the top social networks that use algorithmic feeds to feature content have been exploited in similar ways. Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube recently came under fire for allowing its artificial intelligence to promote extremist views. And in Friday’s indictment, Mr. Mueller named Twitter Inc. and Facebook-owned Instagram as well.
Historically, the only way to deal with this problem has been to disrupt an established network with a fresh one. Fostering competition could shift power away from Facebook. Yet many have begun to argue that Facebook, with its dominance of social media, should be treated as a monopoly, and even broken up. One could argue that the grounds for doing so now include national security.