How Facebook is Fueling The French Populist Rage

By Frederic Filloux

The “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) unrest that has been spreading across France over the recent weeks is the perfect, grass-rooted, unstructured movement that demonstrates the efficiency of Facebook and the damages it can indirectly cause to Western democracies.

The Yellow Vests started with the controversial tax on gasoline and grew with a widespread discontent against the government. President Emmanuel Macron is viewed as the embodiment of the French elite, disconnected from the country, and willing to favor “The Rich”. Next was a series of blockades across the country, that turned increasingly violent.

On Saturday, 166,000 people carrying the iconic outfit— invented by some Scottish railway workers in the 1960’s and which is a mandatory equipment in French cars — were on deck. In Paris, the demonstration turned violent with scores of destructions. Firefighters responded to 249 arsons of cars and stores.

I spent my entire afternoon there. Nearly all the people I talked to admitted to relying on Facebook to get informed in real-time on the unfolding events. In France, 63 percent of internet users are on Facebook.

The country is served by a remarkable cellular infrastructure that is relatively inexpensive and reliable (laws have been passed to force carriers to progressively cover 100 percent of the territory). The result is countless selfies, videos, and live blogging, which fueled anger and fantasy. Above all, Facebook provided an incredibly efficient logistical support for hundreds of demonstrations large and small across the country.

Facebook was able to build on two specific elements.

The spontaneous nature of the movement, which is both local and decentralized. 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 Lives. 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 has become a national voice. Nicolle’s 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.

Facebook substitutes the traditional media. In several cities, journalists have been attacked and have become the focus of a widespread public hatred. For demonstrators, ranging from moderate to the more radical, Facebook is the expression of the people, therefore it can’t lie. Sometimes, the social network carries obvious fake news, such as images of bleeding protesters taken two years ago in Spain or spreads the rumors of tanks ready to move against the Yellow Vests (15,000 interactions). The quick debunking by mainstream media is always lost in the ambient noise.

Vincent Glad, a journalist from Libération quite knowledgeable to the social beat in France wrote last Friday:

“While Yellow Vests no longer believe what traditional media say, these Facebook Lives and more broadly videos that circulate on social networks appear as the only reliable media.”

On Friday, a tentative negotiation involving French officials and some improvised delegation of protesters was quickly canceled when the government refused the meeting to be broadcast on Facebook Live. As Vincent Glad wrote in “Libé”:

“Contrary to a popular belief among the Yellow Vests who are convinced that Macron is censoring them with the help of Facebook, their best ally is Mark Zuckerberg. Without any doubts, the movement benefits from Facebook’s new algorithm that favors groups contents over those posted by media. Once you made a few likes on a group, you are overwhelmed by the group’s content. The new algorithm has funneled the Yellow Vests in a filter bubble largely filled with yellow content…”

The collusion between the State and big corporation sometimes leads to a long-lasting Gallic fantasy. Here is an example (abbreviated translation below):

“CENSOR FACEBOOK
Facebook sentenced to pay €1000 to every citizen.
This is a civic duty. We all witness the dictatorial censorship initiated by Facebook and the Government.
Facebook’s attitude is a clear violation of the French citizen’s rights.
The French people poses an ultimatum to put an end to its censorship by Friday, November 22.
Once the “Gilets Jaunes” prevail, a government-supported lawsuit will be filed against Facebook to claim a damage of €1000 per person (67 billion euros) for violating free speech — they can afford it.”
[etc.]

In a weird twist of event, Facebook is now the archenemy of both the quintessential and immensely rich US corporation, but it is also seen as the people’s bullhorn that must be defended against the State.

This would sound goofy if the heart of Paris didn’t wake up this Sunday morning looking like an urban war zone, with the acrid smell of 10,000 tear gas grenades used the day before, and with 133 people hospitalized.

As the absolute amplifier and radicalizer of the popular anger, Facebook has demonstrated its toxicity to the democratic process.

. . .
The day before the riots, we were discussing with SciencesPo students on how to contain Facebook’s’ ability to spread the dangerous cocktail of hatred, fake news, and logistical help tools that fuel the fire.

Facebook is the most threatening weapon to democracies ever invented. Over the last two years, the hijacking of the social network by populist groups or parties has tainted a dozen election processes across the world and brought to power a string of populists leaders that will have a profound effect on their countries.

It is now certain that Donald Trump in the United States, or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, owe their election to Facebook. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has built a strong electoral base largely thanks to a well-organized weaponization of WhatsApp (fully owned by Facebook Inc.) Some countries, like the Philippines, will see midterm elections next year that could bring constitutional modifications from which there might be no turning back. These shifts have been amplified by a fascinating mixture of recklessness and cynicism on behalf of Facebook which provided consultants to these campaigns.

Should Facebook be banned altogether? Evidently not. Among anything else, there are free speech issues. The network also carries some benefits to society. But above all, as nature abhors vacuum and habits have settled, the disappearance of Facebook or WhatsApp would open the floodgates to services completely beyond the control of the Western government. Apps such as Telegram, or worse, ad hoc version of Chinese ultra-popular WeChat or Toutiao, would fill the void in a more potent way: while a single Facebook group can’t go beyond 256 people (a simple hack can grow communities up to 10,000 members), the Russian app Telegram can create groups with 75,000 members at once. Toutiato, the widespread Chinese news app, captures 74 minutes of its user attention each day, versus 53 minutes for Facebook.

Despite their incredible negligence, Facebook’s management is safe. Zuckerberg controls its board and his number two, Sheryl Sandberg, can’t decently be fired, protected by the “Lean In” flak vest. But Facebook needs more than ever to be regulated one way or another. A reasonable way would be to split Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram, all currently deeply interconnected.

It might take a while. Expect further damages in the meantime.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com