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: letting people channel their rage.
In a 2011 paean to “the Facebook revolution,” Chris Taylor of the tech news website Mashable wrote that Facebook was “democracy in action.” Philip Howard of the University of Washington, who researched the social network’s role in the Arab Spring, said in the same year that social media “carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising.”
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 US-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 US 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.
Soon after the countries that underwent Arab Spring revolutions began reverting to authoritarianism or plunging into chaos, concerns emerged about the ability of social networks to shape democratic transitions. But what Facebook and other platforms did was help to get people get more and more excited about things that bothered them.
It’s happening again in France, a country impossible to describe as an autocracy and one where the US has no reason to foment a revolution.
It all started with the government’s decision to raise taxes by 6.5 cents per liter on diesel and 2.9 cents per liter on gasoline. This isn’t a major outrage. 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.
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.
“Self-appointed thinkers became national figures, thanks to popular pages and a flurry of Facebook Live,” Frederic Filloux, now a researcher at Stanford and formerly a journalism professor at Sciences Po in Paris, wrote on Medium. Nicolle’s “gospel is a hodgepodge of incoherent demands but he’s now a national voice.”
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. 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,” journalist Vincent Glad wrote in a column for Liberation.
Whether the anger unleashed by France’s tiny tax hike is real or at least partially induced by Facebook echo chambers is by now difficult to figure out without exact scientific methods. Nevertheless, it’s time to cast away any remaining illusions that social networks can play a positive role in promoting democracy and freedom.
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 Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. -- Ed.