Facebook Yellow Vests

When social networks invite themselves into democracy


The Yellow Vest crisis revealed the role of social networks as a driving force and catalyst for the movement. How to govern in the age of Facebook?

While President Macron is trying, by solemnly speaking to the French, to find solutions to the Yellow Vests crisis, a deep gulf seems to have been established between the people and their leaders. The classic institutional workings of political life seem to have been demonetised in favour of new and sometimes violent engines of expression, demand and speech. Social networks are shaking up the logic of the functioning of the public space. They are the amplifiers but also the fertile ground for words that are not always well-intentioned.
En February 2017, Mark Zuckerberg, the mythical founder of Facebook, stated that his social network is intended to "enable" " to establish a new process for citizens around the world to participate in collective decision making ». From words to deeds, he made a major change to Facebook's algorithm: now, on their news feed, users see in priority the elements shared by their friends, and in particular by social network groups, rather than by companies, brands or media. A change that is the keystone of the rise of a movement like the Yellow Vests movement. Indeed, the modification of Facebook's algorithm degrades the visibility of pages, and therefore of content published by traditional media, while it privileges what is shared by groups, profiles, and local information.


The Yellow Vests is a protean movement that intrigues observers by one of its qualities: the heterogeneity of its demands combined with the absence, or even refusal, of any collective representation. Born in social networks, the movement bears the congenital trace of it. Indeed, from its origin, the social network is a space that favours individuality. Each person tells his or her life story, shares images and messages that are often lapidary, immediate and without deep reflection.
The social network thus makes it possible to organize oneself, to see that other people have the same opinions, but for CNRS researcher Thierry Vedel, who specializes in the relationship between the Internet and politics, the giant of social networks "does not contribute to decision making, consensus building, joint claims".
Facebook is the ideal flowering space for this type of movement (...) unstructured, atomized and without any real representative. ", explains to AFP Tristan Mendès France, who teaches digital culture at the University Paris-Diderot. « Like them, Facebook doesn't have a center, it's based on communities. ".
The diversity of the groups present on Facebook is a reflection of a movement whose members have profiles as varied as their demands.
For Olivier Ertzscheid, teacher-researcher in information sciences at the University of Nantes, ". If Facebook wasn't there (...) this undeniable social distress would never have reached the proportion it has reached in terms of visibility. ». It states that " Facebook is not simply a sounding board that amplifies noise, it is a mode of propagation of mobilization that is based on the instantaneous, the emotional, and that overvalues feelings of injustice. "


Emotions related to anger are the ones that are best propagated on the platform. Facebook offers a technical architecture for information flow that is perfectly adapted to a movement built on indignation. And the platform also benefits from it, since it feeds off the interactions, and this viral content generates a lot of it.
It should not be forgotten that Facebook works on the principle of virality, which is what makes it its engine. So the network never stops blowing on the embers by putting forward a claim forgotten by all but the algorithm which had noted that it had been the subject of many "like". Facebook's algorithm is calculated to draw users' attention to mobilizing and engaging topics.
For Olivier Costa, director of research at the CNRS, social networks encourage a discourse of protest and revolt. He says : " Everyone could see that it is almost impossible to enter into a serene and well-argued dialogue. Facebook or Twitter is emotion against emotion, anger against anger, indignation against indignation, outrage against outrage. The result is either a dialogue of the deaf between people with little ability to listen, constantly being spurred on by trolls; or the constitution of spheres that are empowered, populated by people who share the same convictions, here citizens who think that the government is making policy for the sole benefit of bankers, there others who think that yellow vests are all a bunch of bewildered people. "

Fake news

Publications abound, groups multiply, " leaders " emerge here and there on Facebook. The movement's ten main Facebook groups generated more than 1.3 million interactions (comments, sharing...) on December 8 alone, according to data provided by the company Crowdtangle. The social network creates links and shares information, but also stress and fake news. All the more so since, on Facebook groups, members are less wary of information published by members themselves than by the traditional media, observes Mendès France.
The policies are wrong, the media are wrong "The description of the group "Angry Citizens", which has nearly 16,000 members, reads as follows. This mistrust contributes to the spread of "Fake news": since the beginning of the movement, false information has been shared at breakneck speed. Latest publications presenting the UN pact on migration, which was adopted on Monday in Morocco, as an attack on the "sovereignty of France". These have been seen and shared hundreds of thousands of times.
Rarely have so many peremptory assertions and far-fetched information been made to fuel a social movement. " wrote Olivier Costa. He adds: " It is almost impossible to stem this tide, due to the emotional nature of the mobilization, the hermetic nature of the social network spheres which only disseminate information in accordance with the prevailing thinking, and the time needed to denounce a fake news. "An elastic relationship to the truth has been established and is spreading at great speed, including among citizens who are a priori accessible to reason.
From then on, social networks become playgrounds if not battlegrounds for all organizations that wish to manipulate opinion. And their task is a very easy one, as social networks structurally favour the effects of contamination and overbidding.


Much has been said about the role that organizations and pharmacies specializing in social network contamination played in the election of Donald Trump or the victory of Brexit. Not surprisingly, these organizations and pharmacies mobilized in the Yellow Vest movement. It is too good an opportunity for them to contribute to the destabilization of a country like France. According to the newspaper The WorldThe General Secretariat of National Defence (GSDN), the keystone of the French security apparatus, is coordinating an operation to audit certain activities on social networks. The authorities are particularly interested in "to accounts opened two weeks ago that send 100 messages a day... ». Researchers have noticed suspicious behaviour on networks, particularly Twitter, with accounts massively relaying false or truncated information with the aim of depicting a country ravaged by a quasi-civil war.
Also according to Le Monde, the American IT security company New Knowledge told the British daily newspaper The Times that the Kremlin's propaganda machine had gotten involved in the digital Yellow Vest debate. According to this company, about 2,000 accounts, having posted about 20,000 pieces of content on various social networks and websites, would be involved.

Democratic Stage

For researcher Olivier Ertzscheid, " it is very easy for political parties or lobbies to instrumentalize this anger and turn it against the people who expressed it. There is very clearly a risk. "The scholar notes that Facebook has been a..." social anger elevator ». It was a first stage that allowed the movement to reach a visibility it could never have had.
But it is now necessary to move on to another stage: that of building a public space for debate that triggers political action. The very functioning of the democracy we know is at stake. For Olivier Costa, once the fever has subsided, sooner or later the yellow jackets should be confronted with the very concrete difficulties of the art of governing and making arbitrations. But he notes that this optimism makes us forget that, " in a system where emotions, impressions and half-truths are paramount, it is easy to blame others for one's failures. ".
Although individualized, political expression on Facebook allows ideas to emerge: the Yellow Vests have not abandoned the idea of electing representatives by bypassing traditional channels, and drawing inspiration from tools of "liquid democracy" that allow representation closer to the citizens. For in substance as well as in form, the Yellow Vests movement is a symptom of a crisis of democratic representation. It brings to light the yawning gaping chasm between the decisions made and implemented by political leaders on the one hand, and their perception through the technological reality of social networks on the other.
This new constraint of politics throws the rulers to the citizens, no longer conceived as a shapeless mass but as an addition of individuals, each of whom can speak if not the fatal blow. This fracture forces us to rethink the way politics is done. To dispense with this effort leads to authoritarianism and other totalitarianisms. In order for democracy to live, it has to reinvent itself.  
Sources: AFP, EuropActiv

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