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Facebook’s role in the French protests has polarized observers

A week ago, I looked at some of the early reporting around how the Yellow Vest protests in France had been organized on, and perhaps amplified by, Facebook and its family of apps. Ryan Broderick and Jules Darmanin have a new report in BuzzFeed today looking at the latest round of protests in the weekend, which were broadcast live on Facebook by activists. The reporters describe the Yellow Vest movement as a feedback loop that started on Facebook in so-called “Anger Groups” and generated violent protests in the real world that, in turn, were consumed on Facebook.

The Anger Groups finally mobilized in October after a Change.org petition about fuel taxes went viral within a small Parisian suburb. The petition led to a Facebook event, which has now led to four weeks of similar Facebook events spreading across France. Three people have died so far, hundreds more have been injured, and thousands have been arrested.

This weekend the Facebook feedback loop seems to have completed itself. Protesters brought together by small, decentralized Facebook groups poured into the streets of Paris, livestreaming the violence for their friends watching back home.

The writers are definitive in their assessment: “The social network poured gasoline on a fire that had been burning in France since the first days of Macron’s presidency.” Nearly 1,400 people were arrested over the weekend, the New York Times reported — the fourth consecutive weekend that protesters took to the streets.

Facebook is one lens through which to view the French protests — but it’s not the only one. In the London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding examines the issue not according to the medium but to its message: widespread dissatisfaction with French President Emmanuel Macron, rising taxes, and stagnant wages. In Harding’s piece, Facebook is mentioned precisely once, in the context of how one of the movement’s organizers first came to prominence.

That’s led some observers to question whether Facebook’s role in the protests is overstated. In New York, Max Read says there is little evidence for the connection made in BuzzFeed and elsewhere:

It’s a compellingly dystopian way of thinking about the riots, in which hundreds of people have been injured, especially if you’re a Facebook critic or skeptic. Look at what Facebook brings to stable democracies! Look at how Facebook leads good citizens astray! The problem is that there’s very little evidence being provided for this particular narrative. We know that Facebook has adjusted its News Feed sorting in various ways over the last year. We know that some of the protesters have used Facebook to organize themselves. But it seems like a big stretch to go from there to calling the movement “a beast born almost entirely from Facebook,” as Buzzfeed does.

That’s not to say that Facebook was irrelevant to the protests. There seems to be consensus that the social network is the organizational platform of choice for the gilets jaunes. But the idea that popular outrage is more about “the power of social networks” than actual French politics, as Bershidsky argues, seems very wrong, and more than a little irresponsible. “Some in Paris have suggested all gilets jaunes are driven by fake-news and conspiracy theories on Facebook, & are somehow uneducated,” Guardian Paris bureau chief Angelique Chrisafis tweeted on Friday morning. “That was not what I found and it would be a mistake to think that … ” At one barricade, Chrisafis spoke with a wide range of citizens “united in fury at Macron’s way of running France — what they called his top-down approach cut off from ordinary people’s experiences. Everyone could angrily quote examples of Macron’s ‘arrogance.’” This sounds like real grievance, not inauthentically promoted “fake news.”

Read argues we should view Facebook not as a “cause” but as a “condition” — as part of the backdrop against which events take place, albeit one that is influencing those events in ways that are difficult to isolate.

Certainly it seems clear that French protesters are acting out of sincere dissatisfaction with their government. And it is unhelpful, as Read notes, to continually ask ourselves whether these protests would be taking place in some theoretical world where Facebook had never been built. “To the extent we’re able to separate out and measure Facebook’s effect on society,” Read writes, “it seems increasingly clear that its influence is more important on a macro, structural level — in the way it shifts and opens up an entire media-political ecosystem — than on an immediate, individual behavioral one.”

I’m less eager to turn my attention away from Facebook’s effect on individuals. It was only four years ago that the company was caught altering the News Feed in an effort to manipulate users’ emotions. That research, incidentally, found that people who saw more positive posts were likely to write more positive posts. It seems far too early to dismiss the idea that French Anger Groups didn’t similarly mobilize their audiences.

Perhaps we’ll never be able to say, with any certainty, what role social networks played in bringing the Yellow Vests onto the streets. But at this early stage, it seems to me we ought to keep an open mind. In the meantime, Macron is making concessions to the protesters: on Tuesday evening, among other things, he promised to increase the minimum wage.

Pushback

My piece on Kevin Hart and the Oscars had the misfortune of being picked up by the Google AMP algorithm over the weekend, becoming the top post on our site over the weekend, and I received an inordinate about of hate mail on the subject. Most people are understandably terrified of living in a world where bad jokes told many years ago haunt us forever and prevent us from getting jobs. Susan Fowler makes this point in the New York Times:

I’m not condoning Kevin Hart’s old jokes, and he isn’t either. But I fear we’re creating a disastrous precedent. In holding people accountable for their old views — even ones they realized were wrong and apologized for — we are setting standards that nobody can meet. We cannot expect to make progress if we do not allow people the chance to grow with us.

My issue was Hart never apologized, and seemed surprised to even be asked about homophobic views. This is an “apology,” after all, that began: “Our world is becoming beyond crazy, and I’m not going to let the craziness frustrate me,” and grew more indignant from there. And was followed up by an Instagram post in which he said he had “passed on [making] an apology.” Good people have indeed suffered from a post-Gamergate world in which any old tweet can and will be used against you, whether it’s in context or not. This still does not seem, to me, to be one of those cases.

Democracy

Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret

Everyone’s talking about this story from Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Natasha Singer, Michael H. Keller and Aaron Krolik about the extent to which popular apps exploit access to your phone’s location history. While the data is supposed to be anonymized and aggregated, in practice it’s often trivially easy to link particular movements to an individual, according to the report. If you thought Cambridge Analytica was a scandal, you’ll want to read this one in its entirety:

At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information, The Times found. Several of those businesses claim to track up to 200 million mobile devices in the United States — about half those in use last year. The database reviewed by The Times — a sample of information gathered in 2017 and held by one company — reveals people’s travels in startling detail, accurate to within a few yards and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day.

These companies sell, use or analyze the data to cater to advertisers, retail outlets and even hedge funds seeking insights into consumer behavior. It’s a hot market, with sales of location-targeted advertising reaching an estimated $21 billion this year. IBM has gotten into the industry, with its purchase of the Weather Channel’s apps. The social network Foursquare remade itself as a location marketing company. Prominent investors in location start-ups include Goldman Sachs and Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder.

Google CEO to rebut privacy, bias criticisms before Congress

Sundar Pichai will appear before lawmakers on Tuesday. In his prepared testimony, he plans to reject claims of political bias in search results, David McCabe reports:

“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way.” (The claim, popular with many congressional Republicans, that Google’s products are skewed by anti-conservative bias has not been proven by evidence or reporting.)

Human rights groups press Google on China plans ahead of Pichai testimony

Dozens of human rights groups signed on to an open letter protesting Google’s plans for China, Colin Lecher reports:

More than 60 NGOs signed the document, as well as individuals including Edward Snowden, saying they were “disappointed” by a previous letter from Google. By implementing the project, codenamed Dragonfly, the groups and individuals write, they “fear that the company may knowingly compromise its commitments to human rights and freedom of expression, in exchange for access to the Chinese search market.”

“Actively aiding China’s censorship and surveillance regime is likely to set a terrible precedent for human rights and press freedoms worldwide,” the letter continues.

Facebook fined $11.4M in Italy over data misuse

Facebook got in trouble with Italy for insufficient disclosures during the signup process, Katie Collins reports:

Italy’s Competition Authority on Friday slapped Facebook with two fines that total 10 million euros ($11.4M) for using people’s data for commercial purposes in ways that break the country’s laws.

Italy issued the first fine after deciding that the social network persuaded people to register for accounts on the platform without informing them during the signup process that their data would be collected and used for commercial purposes.

Australia’s new encryption law is ‘deeply flawed,’ says tech industry

Jon Porter explores the widespread global opposition to Australia’s anti-encryption law:

The legislation has “several critical issues” according to a group that represents Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Oath. Digi, the Australian tech industry group, said that the legislation had the potential to introduce systematic weaknesses that could harm the data security of users.

The lack of continued judicial oversight is also “deeply concerning,” the group said. Law enforcement agencies are required to obtain a warrant to force tech companies to build backdoors into their services, but no further judicial oversight would be necessary to intercept telecommunications once a warrant has been issued. Digi said that “judicial oversight and a warrant-based system” are “the minimum safeguards Australians should expect,” yet these were absent from the new rules.

China’s AI start-up Megvii raising $500 million at $3.5 billion valuation: sources | Reuters

Money is flowing into Chinese startups like Megvii, which will help Beijing build a countrywide panopticon:

Megvii’s latest fundraising comes amid Beijing’s plans to build a ubiquitous closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance network and become an international leader in AI, a technology that is increasingly becoming key to various sectors.

Chinese and some foreign investors are pouring money into start-up firms that specialize in AI given Beijing’s emphasis on the technology. Investments in the sector surged to nearly $2 billion this year via 75 deals, more than four times the total value in the previous two years, according to Refinitiv data.

Russia hack ‘bid to discredit’ UK anti-disinformation campaign

Britain’s Institute for Statecraft is a government-funded body that is supposed to counter Russian disinformation. Recently the office was found attempting to influence domestic politics, contrary to its mission, and now there is speculation that Russia hacked it. What a mess.

Elsewhere

Google will shut down Google+ four months early after second data leak

Google+ you absolute rascal:

Google+ has suffered another data leak, and Google has decided to shut down the consumer version of the social network four months earlier than it originally planned. Google+ will now close to consumers in April, rather than August. Additionally, API access to the network will shut down within the next 90 days.

According to Google, the new vulnerability impacted 52.5 million users, who could have had profile information like their name, email address, occupation, and age exposed to developers, even if their account was set to private. Apps could also access profile data that had been shared with a specific user, but was not shared publicly.

YouTube bans Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes for copyright infringement

Alt-right commentator and Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes is now banned from YouTube for “multiple third-party claims of copyright infringement,” according to the company.

To Rebuild Trust, Facebook’s Zuckerberg Looked to Microsoft ($)

Nick Wingfield reports that Mark Zuckerberg, on the advice of his mentor Bill Gates, tried to hire Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith to bolster trust in the company. Smith said no:

Mr. Smith is more public-facing than the top lawyers at most tech companies. Lately, he has become one of the most prominent advocates for closer government scrutiny of artificial intelligence, a technology that promises both huge societal benefits and disruptions.

Facebook Filed A Patent To Calculate Your Future Location

Well that should help rebuild trust.

Facebook lets individual developers back into revised app review

The company is slightly easing up on post-Cambridge Analytica data restrictions, Anna Hensel reports.

Facebook Revelations Damage Image in Tech Industry, Subscribers Say ($)

The Information polled (an unknown number of) its subscribers and found deep distrust of Facebook. The poll found that 77 percent of respondents wanted to work at Facebook less after the events of 2018; 70 percent don’t think Facebook can reverse public opinion in its favor in 2019; and that 75 percent of people think it has been judged fairly during its year of crisis.

This Guy Responded To Cops Who Posted His Mugshot On Facebook And Hilarity Ensued

Stephanie McNeal has the tale of a man who responded to a police mugshot posted on Facebook with a note saying he would soon turn himself in:

Last week, the department featured Akers as its “Wanted Wednesday” criminal of the week on its Facebook page. The department often posts wanted criminals on its page on Wednesdays to urge citizens to keep an eye out.

“Calm down, im going to turn myself in,” he wrote.

Live-Streaming Your Broke Self for Rent Money

Mike Vilensky profiles 25-year-old Jovan Hill, who pays his rent by asking viewers for money on live streams:

By turns manic, flamboyant and sarcastic, Mr. Hill describes his output of live-streamed videos as a “gay, broke diary” that is inspired in equal parts by 4chan (the anonymous, often vulgar online message board) and his identity as a queer black man.

“Like if a sloppy Tumblr blog and a 4chan thread had a mistake of a child,” he said.

Pillowfort wants to be the Tumblr alternative, but it’s not ready yet

Julia Alexander explores Pillowfort, a potential refuge for the porn-hungry Tumblr diaspora:

Pillowfort is a young, blog-centric social platform inspired by early LiveJournal communities and Tumblr fans. People can post their photos, written text, illustrations, and GIFs, and share those creations with others. There are options for both public and private settings, but the site is designed to allow people to spread their work, connect with like-minded individuals, and create communities — including ones that appreciate sexual writing and imagery.

Now, it’s being thrust into the spotlight ahead of Tumblr’s decision to remove “adult content,” a controversial change met with scorn from its impassioned community. But Pillowfort remains a work in progress. Since launching on Kickstarter and Indiegogo earlier this year, Pillowfort has only rolled out beta invites to a small group of people for testing. And although it’s active, the site is often barely functional, according to people who have used the service over the past couple of months.

Launches

Instagram is bringing voice messaging to your DMs

This feels less like a feature anyone at Instagram passionately wanted to build and more like an idea no one could come up with a good reason to say ‘no’ to. Such are the ways of feature creep.

Meet the Bottomless Pinocchio, a new rating for a false claim repeated over and over again

One of our politicians lied so many times about so many things that a fact checker had to invent a new rating system to properly account for what had transformed from standard political lying to outright disinformation campaigns. See if you can guess the politician’s name before you click the article!!

Takes

Don’t Fall for Facebook’s ‘China Argument’

Tim Wu throws cold water on the idea that if Facebook doesn’t build the global social network, China will:

To accept this argument would be a mistake, for it betrays and ignores hard-won lessons about the folly of an industrial policy centered on “national champions,” especially in the tech sector. What Facebook is really asking for is to be embraced and protected as America’s very own social media monopolist, bravely doing battle overseas. But both history and basic economics suggest we do much better trusting that fierce competition at home yields stronger industries overall.

Rediscovering My Daughter Through Instagram

Helene Stapinski writes about how Instagram helped her understand her 15-year-old daughter:

Social media has been blamed for ruining our democracy, shortening our children’s attention spans and undermining the fabric of society. But through it, I was able to be with Paulina out in the world again, to see what she sees, to virtually stand beside her and witness the people and places she moves through, in nearly real time. Not in a parent-policing role, but in a wonderful-world sort of way.

My Befuddling Dinner With Facebook Empress Sheryl Sandberg

Virginia Heffernan wistfully recalls her Lean In dinner with Sheryl Sandberg:

In other words, I idolized Sheryl Sandberg the woman—good for any sister who finds a way to amass $1.6 billion for being at parties and steering clear of some boring ops job—but from the first minute I saw her in person in 2013 I was very, very concerned about Facebook. It dawned on me that Sandberg was human—a small, vain, bright, self-absorbed, convivial everywoman with a talent for money and fame—and that no one human, even Sandberg, could discipline the galactic, epochal spiritual wildfire that Mark Zuckerberg had inflicted on the Internet.

And finally …

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey Promotes Tourism to Myanmar, Where Social Media Enabled Genocide

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, fresh off of causing an international incident by briefly holding up a sign that someone handed to him, recently decided to unwind with a 10-day silent meditation retreat. He did so in Myanmar, a country where social media has been credibly linked to violence against the Muslim minority population. He then tweeted about how he used the time to reflect on how pain is a figment of the imagination, which came as news to the many chronic pain sufferers who proceeded to ratio him.

In the future, tech CEOs may want to approach discussions of their vacations the way they approach their 10-day meditation retreats. Which is to say: silently.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and yellow vests: casey@theverge.com.


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