Blog Ipsa Loquitur

BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick: The “Yellow Jackets” Riots In France Are What Happens When Facebook Gets Involved With Local News

In January this year, “Anger Groups” (Groupes Colère) started to appear across French Facebook. The first group was titled “Are you fed up? This is now! (anger + dept)” and it was started by a Portuguese bricklayer named Leandro Antonio Nogueira, who was living in the southwest département — or administrative territory — of Dordogne.

Nogueira’s group called for members to peacefully protest local authorities by blocking roads. Nogueira then quickly helped set up Anger Groups in other départements across France. These immediately gave lower-middle-class and working-class people in small towns a chance to complain about local issues. Nogueira’s first group, which is private, currently has around 90,000 members.

These pages weren’t exploding in popularity by coincidence. The same month that Nogueira set up his first group, Mark Zuckerberg announced two algorithm changes to Facebook’s News Feed that would “prioritize news that is trustworthy, informative, and local.” The updates were meant to combat sensationalism, misinformation, and political polarization by emphasizing local networks over publisher pages. One change upranks news from local publishers only. Another change made the same month prioritizes posts from friends and family, hoping to inspire back-and-forth discussion in the comments of posts.

The easiest thing to do when the monster stomps out of the castle and starts strangling peasants is to waggle your finger at the mad scientist and howl ‘you tempted fate by playing God; you must have known you could never control your creation!’ But I’m not going to sit on my couch and blame Mark Zuckerberg for building something that he lacks the ability to control or even understand. Technology is weird, man. Even the so-called geniuses don’t get it all the time. For example, Steve Jobs was reportedly quite surprised the iPhone’s App Store was so darn popular. And, you know, if the App Store ended up destroying Western Civilization, he’d probably have been pretty surprised by that, too.

No, I think at this point in my life, I’m mostly upset that we’ve spent the last half-decade watching Mark Zuckerberg’s creation lurch from bloody disaster to increasingly bloody disaster, all while Zuckerberg hems and haws and goes “Well, you know, this monster really brings us all together, and we take it very seriously when our users ask us to keep the stranglings to a minimum.” I can’t read his mind, but I don’t really need to. Even if Zuckerberg were an altruist and not the world’s most successful surveillance capitalist, or if creating a surveillance capitalist apparatus were somehow an altruistic goal, Zuckerberg’s failing miserably. Facebook causes so much collateral damage that even the most charitable version of Zuckerberg’s intentions and motivations aren’t enough to make up for all this bullshit:

So, in less than two weeks, what you end up with is this: A Change.org petition with fewer than 1,500 subscribers gets talked about on a local radio station. The radio appearance is written up by a local news site. The article is shared to a local Facebook page. Thanks to an algorithm change that is now emphasizing local discussion, the article dominates the conversation in a small town. Two men from the same suburb then turn the petition into a Facebook event. A duplicate petition goes viral within the local Facebook groups. Then a daily newspaper writes up the original petition. This second article about the petition also goes viral. So does the original petition. And then the rest of French media follows.

This week, protesters scaled the Arc de Triomphe, burned cars, and clashed with police in the third consecutive weekend of riots in France. More than 300 people were arrested in Paris last weekend alone, and 37,000 law enforcement officers have been deployed around the country to restore order.

There’s a time for mad science, there’s a time for apologizing for the unforeseen consequences of said mad science, and then there’s a time to shut up and help the rest of us destroy the monster you built before it kills us all.

If you’re looking for a torch or pitchfork, I hear Paris is lovely this time of year, Mark.