Mark Zuckerberg cannot control his own creation

Anything from joke videos to fake news can spread like a virus, changing how people feel and act

In Walt Disney's Fantasia, the apprentice Mickey Mouse bashfully hands back the sorcerer's hat after failing to stop a troupe of magic broomsticks from causing a flood. Mark Zuckerberg made his own bow to the US Congress on Tuesday by apologising for the havoc that he has unleashed at Facebook.

Mr Zuckerberg once gave the impression of being supremely in charge of his company, down to his control of its voting shares. Even when something went wrong and he had to backtrack, it felt like a mere adjustment to his master plan. Lately, he has looked more apprentice than sorcerer.

"Social networks can have properties that are neither controlled nor even perceived by the people within them," Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler observe in their book Connected. Or by those in charge. The troubling thing is not that Mr Zuckerberg at first downplayed Russian efforts to affect the US presidential election, but that he did not understand them.

With greater effort and honesty, Facebook can fix the laxity with which it has handled personal data. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed that it was far too loose in allowing people and organisations to plug into its “social graph” and extract data about millions of users. It has already tightened its data controls and must tighten them more, but the task is achievable.

But other things cannot be fixed because they are beyond Mr Zuckerberg’s control, lost in myriad encounters among Facebook’s 2bn users. The technical term is emergence, the powerful and unpredictable outcome of millions of users interacting freely with others. Anything from joke videos to fake news can spread like a virus, changing how people feel and act.

Mr Zuckerberg has been subdued by witnessing his creation cause chaos. Facebook was tapped by anti-Rohingya Buddhists in Myanmar and Russian fake news factories. No higher authority holds the solution. The EU and the US may impose stricter rules on social networks, but politicians and regulators have no deeper insight into Facebook's workings than its founder.

Facebook increasingly talks of trying to limit the amount of passive consumption by users, from reading news (fake and otherwise) to watching videos. Instead, it wants to nudge them back to the kind of interactions with which it started - “to stay connected to the people they love, make their voices heard, and build communities and businesses”, Mr Zuckerberg says.

That may be prudent, but it does not get to the heart of the matter: Facebook grew by intentionally mixing up what Mark Granovetter, the US sociologist, called “strong ties” with weak ones. The former are close relationships among families, friends and colleagues; the latter are links to distant acquaintances and people in other communities. On Facebook, all “friends” are equal.

The EU and the US may impose stricter rules on social networks, but politicians and regulators have no deeper insight into Facebook’s workings than its founder

This could not be faulted as a business strategy, for it enabled rapid expansion from a social network for US colleges to a global corporation. The “six degrees” database patent jointly acquired in 2003 by Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn’s founder, imagined a social network gaining “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of individuals” with this method. It was far too modest.

There was a philosophy behind the strategy. Prof Granovetter pointed out that weak ties sometimes have greater benefits than strong ones. His original example was finding a job: it helps to engage an extensive network of contacts rather simply sticking close to home. Similarly, Facebook groups devoted to organ donation can be extremely useful for patients who need one.

Facebook’s size makes it more weakly tied than social networks that focus on smaller communities. One analysis of 957,000 Facebook users and 59m connections (gathered before it limited data scraping) found that “most connections are weak – with few contacts and infrequent interactions”. That made it “a powerful way to transfer information across large social distances and to wide segments”.

Hundreds of millions of weak ties also make it a powerful way to wield influence. Studies show that people’s mood, behaviour, and even weight are affected by others who are fairly weakly connected in a social network - Profs Christakis and Fowler refer to the “three degrees of influence” that friends of friends of friends can invisibly exert.

This is the trouble with Facebook’s elision of families and acquaintances, of strong and weak ties. The latter can make users happy or depressed; can help them to lose weight or gain it; can deliver insight or misinformation. Good and ill both multiply across its emergent, disobedient network.

Mr Hoffman limited this at LinkedIn by making explicit the degrees of separation among users rather than calling them all "friends", but Mr Zuckerberg was less cautious. So was Mickey Mouse, who dreamt of controlling the stars but awoke to complete disorder.

The sorcerer cleaned up Mickey’s mess but Mr Zuckerberg has not yet handed in his wizard’s hat. “It’s not enough to connect people, we have to make sure those connections are positive,” he told members of Congress on Tuesday. That is a fine pledge, but it would take magic to fulfil it.

John Gapper is a columnist with the Financial Times