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This sort of stealthy manipulation reminds me of an idea I had while reading 'Linked: The New Science of Networks.' It's a dangerous idea, I think. The book discusses what would be necessary to take the network of film participants and effectively 'break' the '6 degrees of Kevin Bacon' game. Most would presume the way you'd go about it is by finding the nodes connected to the most people and remove them. That's wrong. Because of clustering, removing the most-connected nodes results in almost no change to the general connectivity of other nodes.

Nodes which are actually important are 'bridge' nodes that provide a means of moving between mostly-disconnected groups. I started wondering what these ideas looked like in an actual social graph, like society. What would 'bridge' nodes look like, and what would eliminating the connection to them look like and what effect would it have? I think a social bridge node would be something like a biker whose main social group is his motorcycle gang, but who also participates in his elderly aunts knitting circle once a month. He provides a means through which ideas and concepts and information can flow from biker gangs, and those connected to them, to a group of elderly ladies and those they are connected to. They are, almost by definition, tenuous links. Ones which, if someone had influence over the communication networks they were using, it might be very easy to disrupt. What consequences would there be to breaking those links on a large scale? In the '6 degrees of Kevin Bacon' situation, you can get the average number of links needed to get to Kevin Bacon up over a dozen by only removing a couple handfuls of bridge nodes.

I think doing such a thing on a real social graph could be very quiet, possibly undetectable (drop messages from rarely-connecting pairs of users... they rarely connect, so how many of them will go through the trouble to re-establish contact? Have bridge nodes have something go haywire and they have to be issued a new phone number, 'their facebook got hacked', etc). And the consequence would be to freeze most things in place, or at least radically slow down any kind of large-scale social change. Disruption of the status quo on the scale of regime change in a government, say, requires buy-in from large and very mostly-disconnected segments of the population. If only pockets of people are interested in change, it doesn't matter how intensely they want the change to happen, it only matters if they can join forces with very disparate compatriots. If you had high-level control of communication networks and a vested interest in guarding the status quo against large-scale social upheaval, you could probably do it very quietly and without really needing anything more than the metadata of connectivity. No need to find out what ideas are being spread, you could just make sure ALL ideas remain trapped in their own little bubbles or that their spread is greatly contained.






Isn't that what Facebook does, by preferentially connecting you with people you interact with the most?

Thank you for the book recommendation. Your description stands out to me because it feels like that’s the way “Russian” (as often claimed; sorry for a political example) influence on American and other societies via Internet manifests.

For the past few years specifically it feels like a story gets a suspicious amount of immediate and very widespread reach when they’re on the topic of an outrageous member of some certain political or other identity group. Any group, as in this is occurring in all directions simultaneously. I felt this way just yesterday when I saw a Reddit thread about some transgender sports participation drama and the “Other Discussions” tab had fifty other identical threads making sure the “link breakage” you describe is broadcast as widely as possible. Jessica Yaniv is another recent example. I don’t doubt that those divisive people themselves are genuine, but the absolute fervor around these topics just feels so fake. I could see the argument that it’s a natural feedback loop of people becoming more aware of and attuned to certain topics, but the truly scary thing is there’s no way to know.




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