In December 2018, amid massive civil unrest in France, a photograph of a serrated knife hidden in a baguette appeared on social media with a quip that it showed “bladed weapons confiscated from rioters” by Paris police.
As of December 6 the image had accumulated tens of thousands shares, and a screencap published to Facebook received thousands more:
bladed weapons confiscated from rioters by the paris police. pic.twitter.com/fyVe8alMbv
— Hans (@HansReloaded) December 3, 2018
Although the tone was perhaps subtle, the original poster’s other content (not to mention that the baguette is clearly in a shop, not displayed as evidence) strongly suggested that the image was shared solely as a joke. But replies to the original post indicated that the humor wasn’t grasped by everyone on social media:
No, this is a bread knife shaped like a baguette, for sale in a shop. See… https://t.co/INcz6fwxh5
— Steve Dyke (@hewasahero) December 4, 2018
Keep making jokes. It was a good one. Most of us got it 😂
— Lexi Alexander (@Lexialex) December 4, 2018
The tweet referenced protests in France that began in November 2018 and continued into December. The demonstrations were sparked by an increased tax on gasoline and austerity in general, but seem to have grown in both size and violence to encompass all types of resentment against the status quo. Alain Jocard, a photographer for Agence France-Presse, described what he witnessed:
I saw people of all ages. Many of them weren’t wearing masks. I think they came to demonstrate and got caught up in the violence. There were also the “casseurs” — literally someone who breaks things, loosely translated as thugs, these are the people who attach themselves to any large demonstration in Paris with the intent of causing as much damage as possible. They were easily identifiable and more organized. What struck me was that this time, they had established a series of barricades. They didn’t wait to lose one to police before making another one. This time when they lost one, they just fell back to another they had already built. This slowed down the police, giving the “casseurs” a chance to re-organize and go wreak havoc someplace else. The barricades were often manned not by the “casseurs” but by regular protesters. They were the ones who were most affected by the tear gas and who seemed to be throwing anything they could find at the police.
The unrest followed a well-worn path, as well. The grievances expressed by protesters in France (reactions to austerity and social change) were weaponized by disinformation and pushed along by algorithmic changes to Facebook’s newsfeed:
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 upranksnews 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.
However, in the case of the “French riot” baguette weapon, the post was clearly shared to spread humor — not misinformation.
Sharp-eyed reporters pointed out that it had been available as a novelty item for some time:
No, it’s not. This a novelty baguette bread knife that has been on sale in France for years, available to buy at €8.95 from a store called L’Atelier Apero. It literally says this in the photo. https://t.co/L4ZOvqw4kc
— Lina – سيرين (@Lina_Serene) December 4, 2018
Intent notwithstanding, the same exact image was shared to the r/forbiddensnacks subreddit on April 5, 2018.
As such, there is no way a “baguette knife” could have been captured by police in Paris after riots that commenced more than six months after that exact image was shared to Reddit.