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Exploitation of Network Diffusion

With the increasing digitization of social networks in the modern age, information and ideas that used to be exchanged “in person” are now deeply embedded in communication mediums such as facebook, twitter, or instagram. But what is the effect of this?

More specifically, in class we discussed Network Diffusion, and the idea that in a network of people deciding on a topic, each person looks to their neighbors in the network in figuring out their belief. Do I support candidate Trump, or not? Do I repost this meme, or not? I log onto my facebook, view what other people are saying, and partially make my decision based on the information I receive from my “friends”, or equivalently connected nodes in the social network. This is standard network diffusion. However, because a social network like Facebook’s information-feeds between people are built on top of their company’s technology, there is potential for that company to actually influence what information gets transferred from any two people or nodes in the network. Network diffusion is then exploited.

For example, the attached article criticizes Facebook’s private research into the emotional impact of its users’ statuses on other users, which deliberately modified or removed “emotional” words in thousands of users’ statuses to observe their effects on the statuses of others. If we interpret statuses of users as information exchanged between them, then Facebook directly affected its network’s diffusion of “feelings”, as it deliberately changed the information users received from others regarding how they were “feeling” in their statuses. To be fair, Facebook only changed a small fraction of words, and they did it in the hopes of knowing how Facebook’s technology impacts people’s emotional livelihoods, but what is there to stop them, or any future social network technology, from using this maliciously to their advantage? As of now there isn’t, and a company like Facebook could easily create secret network diffusions to increase support for “candidate Trump”, some random meme, or anything for that matter by changing statuses or what information is shown to its users from other users. What if a large number of your friends on facebook was suddenly defending “Reeses New Jumbo Peanut Butter Cups” as the best candy in the world? Would you be influenced to try it? 

The concept of misinformation on the internet is not new, but infiltration and exploitation of our information and social exchanges on mediums like facebook is something that we should be increasingly aware of. We’ve created digital profiles that we believe are individualized, made by an individual and maintained by an individual. I govern my own profile, and every else governs theirs. But every individual is somewhat of a puppet on digital mediums, subject to how that medium’s technology works and how it fosters connections in its network. 


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November 2018