The Interface

By Casey Newton

How Facebook Groups sparked a crisis in France



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December 3 · Issue #257 · View online
The Interface
I had an excellent time talking about social media with Kara Swisher and her precocious 16-year-old son, Louie, on the 300th episode of the Recode Decode podcast. To the hundred or so of you who signed up for The Interface seemingly right after listening — welcome! And let me know what you think.
Over the weekend, violence broke out in France, with more than 280,000 protesters fanning out across the country in what is known as the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement. What started as a reaction against a hike in the country’s gasoline tax has metastasized into something uglier. More than 400 people have been injured across some 2,000 rallies, and one person was killed after being run over by a car. In CityLab, Feargus O'Sullivan attempts to describe a rather amorphous protest:
Unusually, the Yellow Vests is a grassroots mass protest movement with no explicit wider political agenda or links to existing groups. Having organized themselves via social media since May (when the movement was sparked by an online petition), the Yellow Vests have arrived somewhat out of the blue.
There is also no clear media consensus as to what they are protesting beyond the cost of gas. To some observers, the protesters are primarily angry about what they see as President Emmanuel Macron’s apparent indifference toward tough conditions for working people. To others, the movement is evidence of a middle-class backlash. Meanwhile, it’s not automatically easy to say whether the protest cleaves more to the left or the right.
What commentators are saying, both inside France and out, is that the movement has been organized primarily on Facebook. The writer Frederic Filloux described some of the group’s methods:
Two weeks ago, more than 1,500 Yellow Vests-related Facebook events were organized locally, sometimes garnering a quarter of a city’s population. Self-appointed thinkers became national figures, thanks to popular pages and a flurry of Facebook Live. One of them, Maxime Nicolle (107,000 followers), organizes frequent impromptu “lives”, immediately followed by thousands of people. His gospel is a hodgepodge of incoherent demands but he’s now a national voice. His Facebook account, featuring a guillotine, symbol of the French Revolution and the device for death penalty until 1981, was briefly suspended before being reinstated after he put up a more acceptable image. Despite surreals, but always copious lists of claims, these people appear on popular TV shows. Right now in France, traditional TV is trailing a social sphere seen as uncorrupted by the elites, unfiltered, and more authentic.
Writing for Bloomberg (and quoting a French-language column I couldn’t read myself), Leonid Bershidsky argues that Facebook’s decision to promote posts from groups in the News Feed may have exacerbated the protests.
There’s nothing democratic about the emergence of Facebook group administrators as spokespeople for what passes for a popular movement. Unlike Macron and French legislators, they are unelected. In a column for Liberation, journalist Vincent Glad suggested that recent changes to the Facebook algorithm – which have prioritized content created by groups over that of pages, including those of traditional media outlets – have provided the mechanism to promote these people. Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg thought he was depoliticizing his platform and focusing on connecting people. That is not what happened.
“Facebook group admins, whose prerogatives are constantly being increased by Zuckerberg, are the new intermediaries, thriving on the ruins of labor unions, associations or political parties,” Glad wrote.
The result has been civil unrest with few modern precedents, John Lichfield writes in the Guardian. (He’s lived in the country for 22 years.)
I have never seen the kind of wanton destruction that surrounded me on some of the smartest streets of Paris on Saturday – such random, hysterical hatred, directed not just towards the riot police but at shrines to the French republic itself such as the Arc de Triomphe. The 12-hour battle went beyond violent protest, beyond rioting, to the point of insurrection, even civil war.
Reading the coverage, I’m reminded of Renee DiResta’s recent essay “The Digital Maginot Line,” which I first shared here last week. In it, she writes about how liberal democracies have proven more susceptible to the fomenting of violent political outrage than more authoritarian states. She writes about the American case here, but it’s just as easy to translate to the situation in France:
We are (rightfully) concerned about silencing voices or communities. But our commitment to free expression makes us disproportionately vulnerable in the era of chronic, perpetual information war. Digital combatants know that once speech goes up, we are loathe to moderate it; to retain this asymmetric advantage, they push an all-or-nothing absolutist narrative that moderation is censorship, that spammy distribution tactics and algorithmic amplification are somehow part of the right to free speech.
We seriously entertain conversations about whether or not bots have the right to free speech, privilege the privacy of fake people, and have Congressional hearings to assuage the wounded egos of YouTube personalities. More authoritarian regimes, by contrast, would simply turn off the internet. An admirable commitment to the principle of free speech in peace time turns into a sucker position against adversarial psy-ops in wartime. We need an understanding of free speech that is hardened against the environment of a continuous warm war on a broken information ecosystem. We need to defend the fundamental value from itself becoming a prop in a malign narrative.
Think about how the Yellow Vests came about. A political decision was made, and discussed on Facebook. A small group began discussing it in groups. Algorithms and viral sharing mechanics promoted the group posts most likely to get engagement into the News Feed. Over the next few months, the majority of France that uses Facebook saw a darker, angrier reflection of their country in the News Feed than perhaps actually existed. In time, perception became reality. And now the Arc de Triomphe is under attack.
And group posts, you will recall, are one of Facebook’s most highly touted solutions to the social-networks-and-democracy problem.
Of course, at this point we lack the evidence that Facebook caused the Yellow Vests to organize. But we can say that what we saw over the weekend is consistent with other angry populist movements that we have seen around the world — many of them violent, and many of them organized on social media. And we can predict with some confidence that more such movements will appear in the world’s liberal democracies, with equally unsettling results.

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I Quit Google Over Its Censored Chinese Search Engine. The Company Needs to Clarify Its Position on Human Rights.
I quit Instagram and Facebook and it made me a lot happier — and that's a big problem for social media companies
Here’s a widely shared thread from Matthew Ball arguing that Facebook has been a bad partner for publishers — but that publishers have known this for a while, and so continue to partner with the company at their peril. (Also: why isn’t this a blog post instead of 40 tweets???)
Matthew Ball
1/ The narrative around Facebook and web publishers continues to distort and polarize after each outlet encounters layoffs/shutdowns. Each one is tragic, with a real human cost, as well as a societal one. But a lot of this is normal, unavoidable and misunderstood
TikTok, a Chinese Video App, Brings Fun Back to Social Media
And finally ...
Rudy Giuliani forgot a period in between two sentences on Twitter, inadvertently creating a hyperlink. Someone bought the domain to send a political message back to Giuliani, and I invite you to click through and see it for yourself.
chelsea adelaine hassler
Why You Should Always Delete a Tweet With an Accidental Hyperlink (2018)
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