Another day, another devastating public relations disaster for Facebook. Chris Hughes, Facebook’s shaggy-haired co-founder, previously known as a husband-funder-of-failed-campaigns, and ruiner-of-good-magazines, burst in the New York Times and reinvented himself yet again as Mark-can’t-handle-the-truth teller. His piece, It’s Time to Break Up Facebook, advocated for just that.
Not to be outdone by irony, Facebook’s VP and head of global policy, Nick Clegg (that’s right, the former “I’m Prime Minister too, I promise” Nick Clegg) issued a firm rebuttal in the Times. At the same time as we were distracted by Clegg’s red herring, it turns out he was busy frying bigger fish in France.
While the Facebook crisis beat was busy passing around the bombshells over the weekend, a much more important set of meetings was happening for the company that got almost no mention in the American press.
Springtime for Paris
See, if you had been paying attention, you would have seen that in Paris, Mark Zuckerberg was presiding over an initiative led by France’s President Emmanuel Macron to kickstart constructive talks on how to govern Facebook, à la française. The underlying story of the meeting comes out of months of rapprochement between Facebook and the French government.
The love affair began late last year with an offer from Facebook to allow French researchers to get unprecedented access to its content moderation offices and procedures. The tete-a-tete between Macron and Zuckerberg comes at the same time that the French government issues a non-binding report of the researchers’ findings, and kicks off a process that should culminate in parliamentary debate in the summer.
And it continues with a research effort by Laetitia Avia, a French lawmaker from Paris from Macron’s La Republique En Marche! party,who is finalizing a report sanctioned by the French assembly covering hate speech’s effects. The report is expected to outline specific regulation for curbing it in France, into which the Facebook’s researchers’ findings can be incorporated.
In the course of the meeting, Zuckerberg lavished praise on the French president’s efforts to engage Facebook in the regulatory process, and claimed that he would like to see the French model gain more currency across Europe (rather than face different laws in different jurisdictions).
Richard Allen, Facebook’s Chief Lobbyist, said to a “small group of journalists” after the event: “Globally, the French approach is one of the most future-looking approaches we have seen”. What a compliment!
A photo shoot for a flailing president, Paris in springtime for Zuckerberg, maybe it sounds like a nothingburger? The French press was certainly unimpressed by the meeting.
It may, until it becomes clear just how different this interaction was from others that Facebook has been having all across Europe. Unlike the cantankerous volleys between London lawmakers and Facebook after Zuckerberg’s famous no-show before Parliament, and Berlin’s plainly antagonistic legal framework towards Facebook, Zuckerberg’s Paris gambit was like a love affair.
Macron invited him into a head-to-head meeting — according to Le Figaro more fitting for a head of state rather than a head of a company — where Zuckerberg and Clegg presumably had all the rules agreed to ahead of time. Just the setup itself seems like a big PR win for Facebook.
Keep your friends close
This is what makes it so strange. Until you consider the shaky ground that President Macron is currently walking on in France, and the power of Facebook’s platform to make or break some of the protests that have been dogging Macron’s presidency.
See, Macron has been under fire at home and abroad for his response to the ongoing, violent Yellow Vest protests throughout his country (mainly organized through platforms like Facebook). That’s why it’s particularly curious to see him cozying up to Zuckerberg and sponsoring research (and eventually) legislation that could curb certain types of speech on the Facebook platform.
Is it possible that the Macron asked Zuckerberg how to prevent violent content from being posted? Or mused how the French working group that will be issuing recommendations might suggest that there are limits to the types of protests that the platform can promote?
While these are wholly valid questions, and questions being asked by politicians as far away as New Zealand, it’s entirely valid to question why Mr. Macron seems so interested in these topics right now. And it’s entirely valid to question how and why the meeting was organized with such pomp and circumstance, when Facebook has essentially brushed aside other requests to defend itself against other European recriminations.
But Macron’s coziness, combined with Facebook’s embrace of French regulation and the relative secrecy of the meeting, looks awfully fishy.