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Facebook and France, revisited

A week ago, I looked at some of the early reporting around how the Yellow Vest protests in France had
December 10 · Issue #262 · View online
The Interface
A week ago, I looked at some of the early reporting around how the Yellow Vest protests in France had been organized on, and perhaps amplified by, Facebook and its family of apps. Ryan Broderick and Jules Darmanin have a new report in BuzzFeed today looking at the latest round of protests in the weekend, which were broadcast live on Facebook by activists. The reporters describe the Yellow Vest movement as a feedback loop that started on Facebook in so-called “Anger Groups” and generated violent protests in the real world that, in turn, were consumed on Facebook.
The Anger Groups finally mobilized in October after a petition about fuel taxes went viral within a small Parisian suburb. The petition led to a Facebook event, which has now led to four weeks of similar Facebook events spreading across France. Three people have died so far, hundreds more have been injured, and thousands have been arrested.
This weekend the Facebook feedback loop seems to have completed itself. Protesters brought together by small, decentralized Facebook groups poured into the streets of Paris, livestreaming the violence for their friends watching back home.
The writers are definitive in their assessment: “The social network poured gasoline on a fire that had been burning in France since the first days of Macron’s presidency.” Nearly 1,400 people were arrested over the weekend, the New York Times reported — the fourth consecutive weekend that protesters took to the streets.
Facebook is one lens through which to view the French protests — but it’s not the only one. In the London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding examines the issue not according to the medium but to its message: widespread dissatisfaction with French President Emmanuel Macron, rising taxes, and stagnant wages. In Harding’s piece, Facebook is mentioned precisely once, in the context of how one of the movement’s organizers first came to prominence.
That’s led some observers to question whether Facebook’s role in the protests is overstated. In New York, Max Read says there is little evidence for the connection made in BuzzFeed and elsewhere:
It’s a compellingly dystopian way of thinking about the riots, in which hundreds of people have been injured, especially if you’re a Facebook critic or skeptic. Look at what Facebook brings to stable democracies! Look at how Facebook leads good citizens astray! The problem is that there’s very little evidence being provided for this particular narrative. We know that Facebook has adjusted its News Feed sorting in various ways over the last year. We know that some of the protesters have used Facebook to organize themselves. But it seems like a big stretch to go from there to calling the movement “a beast born almost entirely from Facebook,” as Buzzfeed does.
That’s not to say that Facebook was irrelevant to the protests. There seems to be consensus that the social network is the organizational platform of choice for the gilets jaunes. But the idea that popular outrage is more about “the power of social networks” than actual French politics, as Bershidsky argues, seems very wrong, and more than a little irresponsible. “Some in Paris have suggested all gilets jaunes are driven by fake-news and conspiracy theories on Facebook, & are somehow uneducated,” Guardian Paris bureau chief Angelique Chrisafis tweeted on Friday morning. “That was not what I found and it would be a mistake to think that … ” At one barricade, Chrisafis spoke with a wide range of citizens “united in fury at Macron’s way of running France — what they called his top-down approach cut off from ordinary people’s experiences. Everyone could angrily quote examples of Macron’s ‘arrogance.’” This sounds like real grievance, not inauthentically promoted “fake news.”
Read argues we should view Facebook not as a “cause” but as a “condition” — as part of the backdrop against which events take place, albeit one that is influencing those events in ways that are difficult to isolate.
Certainly it seems clear that French protesters are acting out of sincere dissatisfaction with their government. And it is unhelpful, as Read notes, to continually ask ourselves whether these protests would be taking place in some theoretical world where Facebook had never been built. “To the extent we’re able to separate out and measure Facebook’s effect on society,” Read writes, “it seems increasingly clear that its influence is more important on a macro, structural level — in the way it shifts and opens up an entire media-political ecosystem — than on an immediate, individual behavioral one.”
I’m less eager to turn my attention away from Facebook’s effect on individuals. It was only four years ago that the company was caught altering the News Feed in an effort to manipulate users’ emotions. That research, incidentally, found that people who saw more positive posts were likely to write more positive posts. It seems far too early to dismiss the idea that French Anger Groups didn’t similarly mobilize their audiences.
Perhaps we’ll never be able to say, with any certainty, what role social networks played in bringing the Yellow Vests onto the streets. But at this early stage, it seems to me we ought to keep an open mind. In the meantime, Macron is making concessions to the protesters: on Tuesday evening, among other things, he promised to increase the minimum wage.

My piece on Kevin Hart and the Oscars had the misfortune of being picked up by the Google AMP algorithm over the weekend, becoming the top post on our site over the weekend, and I received an inordinate about of hate mail on the subject. Most people are understandably terrified of living in a world where bad jokes told many years ago haunt us forever and prevent us from getting jobs. Susan Fowler makes this point in the New York Times:
I’m not condoning Kevin Hart’s old jokes, and he isn’t either. But I fear we’re creating a disastrous precedent. In holding people accountable for their old views — even ones they realized were wrong and apologized for — we are setting standards that nobody can meet. We cannot expect to make progress if we do not allow people the chance to grow with us.
My issue was Hart never apologized, and seemed surprised to even be asked about homophobic views. This is an “apology,” after all, that began: “Our world is becoming beyond crazy, and I’m not going to let the craziness frustrate me,” and grew more indignant from there. And was followed up by an Instagram post in which he said he had “passed on [making] an apology.” Good people have indeed suffered from a post-Gamergate world in which any old tweet can and will be used against you, whether it’s in context or not. This still does not seem, to me, to be one of those cases.
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Google will shut down Google+ four months early after second data leak
YouTube bans Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes for copyright infringement
To Rebuild Trust, Facebook’s Zuckerberg Looked to Microsoft ($)
Facebook Filed A Patent To Calculate Your Future Location
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Instagram is bringing voice messaging to your DMs
Meet the Bottomless Pinocchio, a new rating for a false claim repeated over and over again
Don’t Fall for Facebook’s ‘China Argument’
Rediscovering My Daughter Through Instagram
My Befuddling Dinner With Facebook Empress Sheryl Sandberg
And finally ...
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