Facebook has been co-opted by a handful of bad actors - not by an army - and forced to surrender some of its social media cachet. A relatively few people bent on sowing discord among the US electorate were enough to compromise the social media giant and cause all sorts of confusion. Now comes the recriminations and finger-pointing. How could this happen? Did Facebook grow too big too quickly without internal oversight? Will its predicament result in unwanted external oversight - or worse? Interesting questions.
This issue, and the attendant questions are front and center these days in the wake of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s indictment of thirteen Russians who are alleged to have infiltrated Facebook, causing all sorts of election-season mayhem. While many have expressed shock - feigned or genuine - the Wall Street Journal opines that this was not surprising. Why?
According to the WSJ, historical research has purportedly shown that the drawback of powerful, centralized networks is their susceptibility to being infiltrated and exploited. The article cites the Soviet Union and the European Reformation as prime examples. Events that started out one way with a certain direction and goals eventually got out of hand. The WSJ article posits that this has occurred with Facebook, and points to the possible point at which promise led to the crisis.
The promise lay in the internet, with its potential to bring down old hierarchies and pave the way for the spread democracy and new freedoms - of speech, for starters. That the promise wasn’t quite fulfilled after events like the Arab Spring in 2011 lay in the fact that despite all the technological innovation, the Internet, after all, was run by humans and used by humans with all their flaws and foibles.
Everyone marched in lockstep, as all-accepting “netizens” (to use a singularly Facebook term). And, in doing so, we lost our critical effectiveness. The article highlights how technological advantages always seem to propel an idea to the point where the organization becomes too hierarchical, possible tyrannical - but definitely less effective. In the instance of the Soviet Union’s beginning and ascendancy, the telegraph and telephone abetted the communist cause, which arguably began a decline for the country with the ruthlessness of Josef Stalin representing the out of touch hierarchy.
With the European (Protestant) Reformation, it was the innovation of printing, and in particular, printing of the Bible. “Luther thought that it would be great if everyone was connected and could read the Bible in the vernacular,” said historian Niall Ferguson, author of the 2018 book “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, From the Freemasons to Facebook.” This notion threatened the established Catholic hierarchy, but soon the new multitude of believers grew to have their own hierarchy, which resulted in 200 years of bloody war.
With this as background, Facebook finds itself in a dominant social media position. But at a time when US politics is roiled with conflict between conservatives and liberals, at each party’s extremes, and the middle is fertile territory. Facebook inherited this space, and within a few years became the world’s preeminent purveyor of news and information for 2.2 billion people.
But even here, hierarchy prevailed, as a skeleton crew of employees and engineers controlled what information the masses would receive. And it would remain neutral (some contend diffident) about that information flow.
It is into this neutrality that Russia insinuated itself to hi-jack the platform. It rapidly gained influence on the site. Facebook was also complicit and ripe for co-opting, unwittingly helping Russia by constructing recommendations and newsfeed algorithms to galvanize users and enhance its popularity. Facebook may have dug its own grave by apparently acting as if an agent for advertisers to the detriment of its users and the public at large.
In doing so it allowed itself to become part of the Russian conspiracy of meddling in the elections. As a result, it may pay a steep price for it now finds itself at the epicenter of a national security debate which may lead to calls for it to be regulated.
It would be a terrible pill to swallow, and a sad day for the social media giant which began with such promise of being an unbridled champion of free expression. It is also a cautionary tale.