How Facebook Groups sparked a crisis in France

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
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.

Democracy


Google CEO’s appearance before Congress

The sham hearing over “conservative bias” in Congress has been
postponed to accommodate the funeral for President George H.W.
Bush, David McCabe reports. No new date has been selected.


Financial Times France and Germany abandon ambitious
plans for EU digital tax ($)

Mehreen Khan reports that two European Union member states are
proposing a 3 percent tax on digital ad sales rather than a
broader tax on tech companies. Facebook and Google would be hit
hardest by such a move.


Jamal Khashoggi: private WhatsApp messages may offer
new clues to his murder

Activist Omar Abdulaziz believes Saudi authorities intercepted
private WhatsApp messages between him and Jamal Khashoggi,
putting into motion the events that would end with his murder.
The duo wanted to start an online youth movement in part to
debunk state propaganda. But their chatter was caught by
spyware made by Israel’s NSO Group, according to this
fascinating and chilling report from Nina dos Santos and
Michael Kaplan. (NSO denies any involvement.)

The fact Abdulaziz’s phone contained spyware means Saudi
officials would have been able to see the same 400 messages
Abdulaziz exchanged with Khashoggi over the period.

The messages portray Khashoggi, a Saudi former establishment
figure, becoming increasingly fearful for his country’s fate
as bin Salman consolidates his power. “He loves force,
oppression and needs to show them off,” Khashoggi says of bin
Salman, “but tyranny has no logic.”


WhatsApp’s first ever TV commercial warns against fake
news in India

WhatsApp made honest-to-god TV commercials to tell people in
India not to share scurrilous rumors online, Ivan Mehta
reports:

The 60-second commercials, named “Share joy, not rumors,”
will be aired starting today in 10 local languages across TV,
Facebook, and,
YouTube
. The Facebook-owned company has slated the
release of these films just before Rajasthan and Telangana
state elections.

The ads tackle issues of forwarding fake news and posting
shocking rumors on WhatsApp groups, and the need to verify
dubious information received from unknown sources.


Here Is The Research Facebook Commissioned On George
Soros

BuzzFeed publishes some of the opposition research
ginned up by Definers about George Soros. On one hand, it is
essentially f a factual document. On the other, it’s laden with
bolded sentences, underlined phrases, and all-caps headlines —
an utterly spittle-flecked document meant to convey the maximum
amount of panic that a shadowy figure was working in the
shadows to warp your reality. In addition to Definers, I mean!

In a separate piece, Charlie Warzel says
the real problem was the cover-up, as is usually the case in
scandals
. And elsewhere on the dark-arts PR beat, Taylor
Hatmaker
introduces us to Facebook contractor Targeted Victory
.


New York City Council to Host Hearings on Amazon’s
Headquarters Deal

“Members of the New York City Council will host a trio of
hearings to grill city officials and Amazon.com about the
closed-door negotiations that led to the tech giant agreeing to
build its second headquarters in Queens,” Katie Honan reports.

The first oversight hearing will be held on Wednesday, Dec.
12, at City Hall, according to Mr. Johnson’s office. Members
of the council’s economic-development committee will take an
overall look at the Amazon deal.

In January, the finance committee will hold a hearing focused
on the state and city subsidies promised to Amazon. The final
hearing likely will be held in February and focus on the
deal’s impact on Long Island City’s housing, transportation
and infrastructure.


Philippines: journalist Maria Ressa to turn herself in
after police issue warrant

The editor of independent news site Rappler (and a personal
hero) says she will challenge trumped-up charges of tax fraud
that are being used to intimidate her and her news
organization, Hannah Ellis-Petersen reports:

On Sunday night, Ressa confirmed to the Guardian a warrant
for her arrest had been issued. On Monday morning, she
surrendered to the authorities at Pasig city regional trial
court in Manila and posted bail, which was set at 60,000
Philippine pesos (£900).

Speaking outside the courthouse after posting bail, Ressa
said that “now is certainly not the time to be afraid”.


How Yemen’s civil war went cyber

Joe Uchill reports on how Houthi rebels in Yemen are using
social media in an effort to win a civil war:

The campaigns use a “Twitter board” — essentially a massive
collection of pre-written tweets focusing on a topic of the
day.

Citizens, including those directed to the boards from
government websites, select tweets and post them rapid-fire
to try to make issues trend

Elsewhere


Tumblr will ban all adult content starting December
17th

Verizon-owned Tumblr, famous for its porn, will purge all adult
content starting on December 17th, Shannon Liao reports. The
ban includes explicit sexual imagery and nudity.
And it’s already flagging innocent posts as “porn.”
But now
there’s more room for … uh,
posts about Virgos, I guess
.


Ex-Facebook Manager Mark Luckie on Silicon Valley’s
‘Black People Problem’

Noah Kulwin talks to just-departed Facebook employee Mark
Luckie about, among other things, the George Soros scandal:

You know, the thing that was particularly jarring about the
Soros issue is that when the Times story came out,
Facebook was very defensive. Both privately and publicly:
No, this isn’t us, we would never do anything like
this
. And then, you know, they do the news-drop right
before Thanksgiving, that — hey, we actually did do this. As
an employee, I had to do a double-take. Well, if you did
this, then why are you only now saying that you did, and why
would you tell your employees that you didn’t? That’s what
contributes to lower morale inside Facebook. It’s what I said
in the memo. It’s hard to advocate on behalf of a company
that you feel is not doing the good in the world that you
imagined it would. That is akin to black users’
disillusionment with Facebook. That disillusionment is
creeping among their employees, as well. They’re feeling a
little bit of that.


Facebook Censors Art Historian for Posting Nude Art,
Then Boots Him from Platform

Zachary Small has the tale of an art historian whose Facebook
account was terminated after an automated content filter
incorrectly identified a sculpture as a human being:

Curator and art historian Ruben Cordova thought that Facebook
was the perfect platform to archive the photographic
materials equivalent to almost a decade’s worth of his
research. He created a network of albums, links,
commentaries, and comparanda online, sometimes using those
resources for his lectures at universities and galleries.
This abundance of scholarship even included materials
necessary for Cordova’s forthcoming publication.

But disaster struck in the early morning of November 16. That
day, Cordova received an upsetting message from Facebook: the
social media company had permanently disabled his account due
to an alleged violation of community standards banning
sexually explicit content. And with that, Cordova lost access
to 9 years’ worth of aggregated resources and materials.


What Is an Instagram Party Account

Taylor Lorenz reports that resourceful teens have hacked
together an events app inside of Instagram, portending the day
when this will be an actual feature inside Instagram, leading
teens to complain that the app has become too bloated, and
leave for another app that has fewer features, where they will
hack together a new events app:

Here’s how it works: When teenagers are planning a big party,
they’ll sometimes create a new Instagram account, often with
a handle that includes the date of the party, like
@Nov17partyy or @SarahsBdayOctober27. The account will be set
to private, and its bio will list the date of the party and
sometimes the handles of the organizers. Sometimes it will
include stipulations—for example, if it follows you, or
approves your follow request, you’re invited.

“Everyone uses social media as a form of validation for the
parties, and no one knows the address to the house until they
post it an hour before it starts,” Christian Brown, a
19-year-old student, says. “That’s the best way to get people
talking.”


Is Geotagging on Instagram Ruining Natural Wonders?
Some Say Yes

Laura M. Holson reports that Instagrammers are ruining Wyoming:

Last week, the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board asked
visitors to stop geotagging photographs on social media in an
effort to protect the state’s pristine forests and remote
lakes. Explaining the campaign, Brian Modena, a tourism-board
member, suggested the landscape was under threat from
visitors drawn by the beautiful vistas on Instagram.


Delta Lake
, a remote refuge surrounded by the towering
Grand Tetons, has become “a poster child for social media
gone awry,” Mr. Modena said in an interview last week.
“Influencers started posting from the top of the lake. Then
it started racing through social media.”


Celebrities Say White Supremacists Used A New Video App
To Trick Them Into Endorsing Anti-Jewish Conspiracy
Theories

Cameo is an app in which celebrities can charge money in
exchange for recording short videos in which they deliver
personalized messages. Naturally, some white supremacists wrote
out some coded hate speech for people like Brett Favre to
perform, and when they found out they had performed hate speech
they got mad.


A Quiet War Rages Over Who Can Make Money
Online

Paris Martineau investigates an organized campaign targeting
sex workers with online presences for harassment:

In the attacks by incels and their allies, activists on
Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan have created automated programs to
streamline the process of identifying, reporting, and
harassing their targets. One program, called the ThotBot,
includes the profiles of more than 20,000 alleged sex workers
from several social media platforms that include a link to a
PayPal account. “Search for bios with paypal in it, if they
get banned paypal takes ownership of all the money on the
account and it inevitably will be taxed as well,” the creator
of the tool wrote in a tweet. In a later message, he claimed
that one user of his program reported more than 100 profiles
to PayPal.

Launches


Facebook is now streaming every episode of Buffy the
Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly

OK!

Takes


I Quit Google Over Its Censored Chinese Search Engine.
The Company Needs to Clarify Its Position on Human
Rights.

Jack Poulson shares why he quit Google over Project Dragonfly:

It’s important to remember that Google’s 2010 withdrawal of
its censored Chinese search engine was provoked by
Beijing hacking
the inner sanctum of Google’s software —
their source code repository — to access the Gmail accounts
of Chinese dissidents. Despite the obvious connection,
Google’s leadership has entirely avoided clarifying
Dragonfly’s surveillance concessions or addressing one of the
main demands in a letter from a coalition of
14 human rights organizations
. The letter implored google
to “[d]isclose its position on censorship in China and what
steps, if any, Google is taking to safeguard against human
rights violations linked to Project Dragonfly and its other
Chinese mobile app offerings.”


I quit Instagram and Facebook and it made me a lot
happier — and that’s a big problem for social media
companies

Christina Farr says she once spent 5 hours a week on Instagram.
She quit cold this summer, and now life is better, she reports.
(Notably, her decision to quit came after the introduction of
an activity dashboard showing her how much time she was
spending on social networks.)

Without social media, that pressure melted away. I started to
enjoy life’s more mundane moments and take stock of what I
have today – a great job, a wonderful community, supportive
friends and so on. I could take my time and enjoy it rather
than rushing to the finish line.

In short, I started to feel happier and lighter.

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???)


TikTok, a Chinese Video App, Brings Fun Back to Social
Media

Kevin Roose stans for the Chinese lip-synching app:

About an hour after downloading TikTok, the popular
video-sharing app, I experienced a bizarre sensation, one I
haven’t felt in a long time while on the internet. The knot
in my chest loosened, my head felt injected with helium, and
the corners of my mouth crept upward into a smile.

Was this … happiness?

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.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and your thoughts on French
politics: [email protected].

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