The liberating role social networks played during the Arab Spring and the Russian protests of 2011 and 2012 was widely lauded. Little of that enthusiasm is on display today amid the violent “yellow vest” protests in France — even though Facebook is still doing what it does best: let people channel their rage.
At the end of 2011, I took part in the Russian protests following a rigged parliamentary election. Facebook played a central role in organizing them. The emerging pattern — leaderless protest networks developing on U.S.-owned platforms; meme-like narratives fueling popular indignation; nebulous, quickly radicalizing, demands fueled by lots of underlying anger — led Russian President Vladimir Putin to suspect the U.S. of organizing action in different parts of the world according to the same playbook. He was as naive as the observers who thought Facebook’s role in these popular uprisings had anything to do with freedom or democracy.
It’s happening again in France, a country impossible to describe as an autocracy and one where the U.S. has no reason to foment a revolution.
It all started with the government’s decision to raise taxes by 7.6 cents per liter on diesel and 3.9 cents per liter on gasoline. This isn’t a major outrage. For someone filling a 50-liter tank with diesel every week, the hike means 15.2 euros ($17.3) a month in extra costs, less than two McDonald’s meals. But the protests, set off in mid-October by a viral Facebook rant by accordion player Jacline Mouraud about the government’s anti-car policy, have escalated until they produced the country’s worst urban riot in more than a decade. Over the weekend, 133 people were injured, including 23 police officers.
As in previous protests, these disturbances are largely leaderless; they don’t need France’s political or media infrastructure to develop. They have, however, thrown up some unlikely opinion leaders, whom protesters follow and whose views get endlessly amplified through “yellow vest” Facebook groups. One of them is Maxime Nicolle, also known as Fly Rider, a 31-year-old Brittany native who has regularly done Facebook Live webcasts from the increasingly violent protests. He has emerged as one of the amorphous movement’s eight spokespeople empowered to negotiate with the government.
French President Emmanuel Macron has described the “yellow vests’” manifesto as “a little of everything and no matter what.” And indeed, the original demands — the repeal of the fuel tax for cars, a minimal value-added tax on food, lower fines for traffic violations, pay cuts for elected officials, and more efficient government spending — have now been muddled by added calls for better public services, the dissolution of parliament, and Macron’s resignation. This is now about anger that flows freely in all directions.
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.
A free society can’t ban Facebook, or even completely regulate away its hate-enhancing function; but it should be aware of the risk Facebook and similar platforms pose to democratic institutions. Ironically, the threat to authoritarian regimes is less: They have learned to manipulate opinion on the platforms with propaganda, trolling, bullying and real-life scare tactics against activists.
A country like France can’t resort to such techniques. That means more work for police and more tough decisions for politicians unwilling to submit to mob rule — until populists, bolstered by the social networks, start winning elections. Averting that result will require people to realize what the platforms really do, and start quitting them in droves.
Leonid Bershidsky is a columnist with Bloomberg Opinion.