Commentary facebook and the yellow vests: good revolt, bad revolt

Facebook’s algorithm is said to have fueled the Yellow Vests protests. The company is now being scolded for it – why, really?

Facebook likes photo: reuters

Facebook did it. Facebook (FB) is said to have made the yellow vest protests in France big. That’s what you read in newspapers, on websites, that’s what professors write.

If you want to understand this thesis, you have to look back to the beginning of the year. In January 2018, FB CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook’s algorithms would in future be more responsive to local news and groups. This was a reaction to the shabbiness in the social networks that became apparent around the Trump election at the latest: disinformation and polarization, hate speech and shouting matches with trolls.

A platform that thrives on people spending as much time as possible on it naturally wants to take countermeasures. And instead motivate interactions far away from the nasty world – in the hyggeligen microcosm between garden fence and Kitafest.

So Facebook changed. And, as the story goes, it helped small local anger groups in France, which formed around the same time, to attract a lot of attention. These groups often explicitly identified themselves by their local affiliation – either by having the number of their department in their name. Or because users often garnished their posts with the abbreviation "ptg" (short for: share) plus the departmental ID.

Accordion players and Russian trolls

Facebook’s newly localized algorithms seem to have jumped on both: according to this narrative, the rage groups suddenly had lots of local traffic washed up in front of their feet.

The movement became networked, unknown ordinary people from bricklayers to accordion players viralized to become spokespeople for what was actually a leaderless movement. Livestreams and memes, outbursts and videos spread as rapidly as the anger – possibly additionally fertilized by the fact that Facebook also approves of more emotional content.

A decentralized movement in which anger paves the way – is that so new?

Classic media reports now seem to be less obviously flushing Facebook’s machines into the news feeds – and Russian trolls are also said to have once again helped heat up the mood.

Not really new

What does all this tell us? Journalism professor Frederic Filloux scolded Facebook as what has become "the most dangerous weapon against democracy." And while the U.S. edition of Buzzfeed calls the movement a "beast born almost exclusively on Facebook," Markus Beckedahl, editor-in-chief of netzpolitik.org, is trying to vent some of the furor: It’s wrong to blame social media for the protests in France; at best, they played a partial role, he told Deutschlandfunk radio.

The only thing is: Is all this actually new at its core? A decentralized, originally leaderless grassroots movement in which the anger of the population paves the way? A movement that uses social media to network and organize itself quickly and agilely? We’ve seen that before. In 2011, during the Arab Spring, the so-called Facebook revolution. When the social network was seen as a tool for spreading freedom and democracy and bringing together all those who wanted to fight for it.

In retrospect, placing such hopes in a for-profit Internet company seems almost painfully naive. Because of course it came, the authoritarian backlash in the countries of the Arab Spring. The optimism turned into the opposite. Of course, it later became apparent how Facebook and its business customers manipulate users and spy on and snitch on them. How the network lets agitators have their way and rewards populism.

For the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

But of course, it’s more complicated than that. The Occupy Wall Street protests and Gezi, demonstrations on the Maidan, for the sea bridge, and in Ferguson, the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the electoral mobilization of Trump and Duterte – in all these and many other events, Facebook has played a role. As an intermediary. As a platform where individuals could network. As a place where mobilization took place. And manipulated. Hounded. And informed. For the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Of course, Facebook’s software systems are not neutral. Of course social media have a great influence on social and political developments. And the fact that they show so little desire to accept the responsibility that arises from this great power is disastrous. But it is also clear that it is too simplistic to criticize Facebook only when it makes a movement big that is considered undesirable.

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