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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
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.
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.