Debate: The ‘Gilets Jaunes’ Movement Is Not a Facebook Revolution

By Jen Schradie, Assistant Professor, Observatoire sociologique du changement, Axa Research Fund Fellow, Sciences Po – USPC. Originally published at The Conversation

In less than a month, France’s gilets jaunes (yellow vests) have gone from being a celebrated example of Facebook’s ability to power a spontaneous revolution to a cautionary tale of how social networks can be manipulated by outsiders to provoke outrage and sow dissent. But in both of these extreme scenarios, the central actors lie outside France, whether it’s the platforms based in Silicon Valley or the suspected propagandists in Russia.

Because the gilets jaunes phenomenon couldn’t be connected to one particular trade union, political party or any other national organization, many looked to the role of the Internet to explain the emergence and diffusion of the protest movement, symbolized by the yellow safety vests that activists wear.

The French are accustomed to protests that are scheduled well in advance. There’s even an app called “C’est la grève” that announces strikes, be they with the railways, schools or elsewhere.

There’s an orderly fashion to so-called disruptive manifestations (as protests are referred to in French), but the gilets jaunesmovement hasn’t followed the rules. So who exactly broke the rules? An easy answer has been the Internet.

Breaking the Rules

In many ways, that’s the point of the gilets jaunes: they’re breaking the rules. Not only did they bypass traditional organizations, but they have accused the Parisian establishment, particularly President Emmanuel Macron, of being elitist and out of touch with the economic struggles of working-class people, particularly those in rural areas. They are not anti-tax in principle or even anti-government intervention, but they are against the type of decision-makers who supported an increase in the tax on diesel fuel without understanding how challenging it has been for people in the countryside to survive – they’re struggling because they have to drive farther and farther to get to fewer and fewer jobs, with wages that have not kept up with the costs of living.

And since existing institutions weren’t responding to these everyday needs, the protests that erupted in November have expanded to broader economic and political demands. But how did this movement happen? If it wasn’t existing organizations, many have said, it must be the Internet. A common example of this argument stems from the viral Facebook videos by Jacline Mouraud, a digitally savvy musician who lives in north-western France and early on encouraged people to protest.

The Revolutionary Power of Social Media Is Wishful Thinking

Both scholars and journalists have argued that digital technology, rather than organizations, drive modern social movements. A decade ago, commentators dubbed the Iranian Green Movement in 2009 a “Twitter Revolution”. Soon after, many suggested that a “Facebook Revolution”drove protests in Egypt. Scholars also claimed that the Internet was key to the 2011 anti-austerity movement in Spain and the American “Occupy Wall Street” movement.

More recently, with the Women’s March against Trump in 2017 or the gilets jaunes in 2018, the same argument is put forth. As a sociologist who researches social media, social movements and social class, I was not surprised at the overblown credit given to Facebook with these latest movements. Still, le sigh. Again?

Yet over the past two years, this celebration over digital technology’s role in political participation took a dark turn. From Trump’s toxic tweets to Brexit’s online cesspool, the role of far-right outfits like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook itself came to light in fomenting far-right movements. And the French foreign minister recently announced an investigation into fake news and Russian manipulation of the gilets jaunes. What was once a horizontal digital army of white knights out to save the day was all of a sudden a horde of bots and hacks orchestrated by authoritarian institutions. Yet many still want to put faith in the Internet over institutions.

But both of these views, whether digital utopianism or dystopianism, fail to acknowledge people on the ground and their existing networks, as well as the fact that populist movements that seem to arise out of nowhere are not new to the digital era.

Just a Tool

Without a doubt, the spread of information during a time of upheaval is certainly faster with the Internet. And the gilets jaunes are no exception. But do we call the French Revolution a “letter” movement? The American civil rights movement a “mimeograph” revolution? The Internet is a communications tool. An efficient one, but it’s still a tool.

Every radical movement has had their communication tools, such as radio with the French Resistance, yet those coded messages in the 1940s needed a network on the ground to make sense of them and respond. Many of the gilets jaunes protests at traffic circles (ronds-points, as they’re called in France) were organized by people who were already connected on Facebook through other ties or who work and live together in the same small towns.

The mimeograph, Film Archives NYC, 2014.

Populist movements like the gilets jaunes often have spikes of initial protest without necessarily having formal organizations that link people together, or what scholars like to call “weak ties”.

Yet existing institutions and networks, from the connections made by France’s Nuit debout movement to traditional unions of teachers and transport workers, were inspired to spread the news of the gilets jaunesduring the emergence period of this movement. And the word “inspired” is the operating word here, as the gilets jaunes movement has motivated these organizations to not only participate in the protests but to take bolder stands on their own issues, such as the current teacher strikes and school occupations over the high school reforms.

And what is often forgotten is the still-critical role that traditional mainstream media play in disseminating information, such as the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro, which has run sweeping coverage of the protests since their inception. And French nightly television news has run non-stop footage and analyses of the protests.

Behind the Hashtags Are Community Ties and Structural Inequalities

But how can the gilets jaunes movement sustain itself? From the analysis and research presented in my upcoming book, The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives (Harvard University Press), I found that over time, movements that have resources and infrastructure are more likely to harness the power of the Internet, and conservatives tend to have an advantage in this regard. Over the long run, it takes focused time and expertise to maintain online participation for social movements. Hierarchical, not horizontal, groups are more likely to be able to do this. Simply, more, not less, organization is required for digital activism to endure in a movement.

Yet I am not arguing that the gilets jaunes was sparked by a conservative organizational bureaucracy. Quite the contrary. It is an organic popular movement that wants the government to be more, not less, involved in improving the lives of the working-class. Yet we can already see how institutions, such as Jean-Luc Melenchon’s left-leaning La France Insoumise movement, have tried to fill the vacuum of this so-called leaderless movement. In the absence of a strong grassroots organization, others will take over, including orchestrated dis-information digital campaigns.

But nor is propaganda new to political movements. The problem with the pendulum swing of “Hooray, the Internet connects!” to “Boo, the Internet deceives!” is that neither explanation for protest takes into account the community ties before the protests began but more importantly, the broader structural crisis that brought people together in the first place.

This is a movement that is linked to power and economic differences – not just people feeling a financial squeeze at the end of the month but also eyeing the growing inequality between the elites and the working class all over France. And they’re not spending valuable time at protests or risking arrest because they are dupes to fake news. They are embedded in a societal context that drives their participation.

When I first moved to France in 2014 after studying populist movements in the United States – from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party – I was curious why there hadn’t been a strong left-wing populist movement in France like in Spain, the US or much of the western world in 2011.

I soon began to understand that despite the emergence of movements like Nuit debout and other protests against the “Loi travail” (a law that loosened worker protections), France’s social system was able to weather the storm of the economic recession that had plagued other countries. So even though digital activism was alive and well in 2011, a strong movement against neo-liberal policies had not yet emerged. Simply put, a popular movement drives Internet use. Not the other way around.

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  1. Amfortas the hippie

    I like the use of “emergence” and “organic”.
    I find it insulting to hear repeatedly that if I dissent, it must be because of either the Right Wing or Russian “influence”…as if I have no agency, or ability to see what’s before my eyes and have independent thoughts about it.
    that this is coming more often from the erstwhile “Left”(dems) just shows how banal and empty they have become.
    for a long time, it was from the Right…”Cultural Marxism” and the Frankfurt Scool were blamed for sinisterly undermining Right Thought(orthodoxy)…yet when I endeavored to go to the source…to actually read Walter Benjamin or Adorno…I could find nothing even close to what was feared by the breathless Righty nutters.
    …and no substance at all to the claims of “cultural marxism” contaminating our “precious bodily fluids”…
    and here today, it is similar: the Mandarins of the Big Center look around…”what? the little people are dissatisfied?…it simply must be those pesky Russians!”.
    again, it’s insulting.
    not less so that I hear the argument from many of the “little people”, themselves.

    1. Carey

      Thanks for this comment. My experience has been similar, and something that I’ve
      noticed for awhile now is the I can at least *talk to* Republicans, while those who
      identify as Dems these days just go straight ad hominem if I depart from their
      orthodoxies, which they apparently see as self-evident truth.

    2. JEHR

      For me, Left and Right are losing their relevance as they are not precise enough. What is needed are at least five policies that describe political positions so that people will know exactly what is being described. I prefer Democratic Socialist or Social Democrat to describe a way of thinking about politics and my five policies would be 1) universal health care, free social security and excellent public and private pension plans; 2) free public education; 3) having elected representatives that are really representative of the people and not just wealthy individuals or professional politicians or lobbyists; 4) ending inequality by supporting unions in both the private and public sector and by taxing to help redistribute money and by eliminating debt for students and those defrauded by bankers; and 5) building up public institutions, including a Job Guarantee, that would serve the welfare of the people and not just a segment of the population (banks now serve bankers’ profits more than production or services of workers).

      Another policy would be to pass a law that separates investment banking operations from deposit operations and a law to break up any TBTF banks or other monopolies. Those policies would be the beginning of a true democracy that need not be described as Left or Right, but as “justice” for all.

  2. Synoia

    I find it insulting to hear repeatedly that if I dissent, it must be because of either the Right Wing or Russian “influence”

    It is a reflection, a denial, by the rulers of “it is not my fault.” It is, however, the rulers’ problem, because by being rulers, they own the problems. Any solution potentially affects the rules contributions and contributors, and is emphasizes the corruption of a democracy by money.

    Expecting our current rulers to embrace publicly funded elections is the political equivalent of “pigs can fly,” with all its cynical overtones.

  3. Ignacio

    Yes those are tools. Tools used by powerful organizations to spread their propaganda and when something they don’t like arises –Gilets Jaunes for instance– it is all blamed on Russia, Russia, Russia!!!

  4. David

    This seems a basically fair analysis. Hidden away in the middle of it is a fundamental point about the difference between real communities and artificial ones. By and large, the GJs come from real, organic communities, which face the threat of being destroyed by liberal politics and neoliberal economics. This means they often know each other personally, and have no need of social media to connect them. The reason why the GJs are essentially a provincial phenomenon is that in the cities, such organic communities have effectively been destroyed, with the expulsion of the traditional working class into the suburbs to make way for urban professionals. The new occupants of the cities have nothing in common with each other and no sense of community (in Paris you can live next door to someone for five years without ever socialising). Organic communities have to be self-organising anyway, in the absence of state services, and often require a large degree of mutual cooperation, sometimes reinforced by the Church, or what remains of the political parties. So if you live in a town with one major employer, and that employer decides to close its factory and move production to Poland, then you already have the social bonds, the identity and the common purpose to protest. You don’t need Facebook. Conversely, if what really animates you is a campaign to have Donald Trump publicly crucified, or to demand special unisex toilets for disabled transsexuals, then you have no natural community, and can only find one by going onto social media and creating it And in the latter type of case, where the common purpose is usually linked to hatred or grievance of some kind, radicalisation is easier and more effective, than when you are dealing with actual, tangible, concerns like not having a job or not having enough to eat.
    Social media has certainly been used to coordinate nation-wide and regional protests by the GJs, but it is not the cause of the protests, nor a way of manipulating them. The media is so used to reporting on “protests” by ascriptive identity groups demanding this or that, that it finds it hard to understand how communities can actually protest together, with groups (men and women, people of different colours and ethnicities, some born in France and some not) that liberal ideology says should be bitter enemies. Either it all isn’t happening (hard to maintain) or the Russians are somehow behind it. Perish the thought that people should still protest collectively against outmoded threats like poverty and insecurity.

    1. Carey

      All well said, one upshot being that resilience and durability are baked into
      things like the GJ protests. I guess you said that, though… gives me a bit of hope.

    2. flora

      the difference between real communities and artificial ones.

      Worth repeating many times. Thanks.

      The new occupants of the cities have nothing in common with each other and no sense of community
      makes them all the more subject to remote directions by unknown entities for attitude and believes about their world.

      1. flora

        adding: and with apologies to Descartes –
        Much of social media seems perfect for the atomized anonymity of city life:
        ‘I am on social media, therefore I am.’

        This isn’t a snark. It’s a comment on how disconnected from their real and entire lives and histories are so many of the upward strivers newly living in the cities.

  5. Ape

    But change in the speed of communication relative to other media can change the dynamics. An overdamped system can become underdamped simply by changing relative frequencies without injecting energy.

  6. Oregoncharles

    “And what is often forgotten is the still-critical role that traditional mainstream media play in disseminating information, such as the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro, which has run sweeping coverage of the protests since their inception. And French nightly television news has run non-stop footage and analyses of the protests.”
    Interesting. I don’t think that would happen here – though blocking the Champs Elysees is a little hard to ignore, an example of effective tactics.

    As far as I’ve gotten, I see no mention of the “horizontal” – leaderless – nature of the movement. I’m not convinced that would be possible without the Internet, or possibly without social media. It’s networked INSTEAD OF organized.

    So far, the French government hasn’t tried to shut down their communication, and at this point, it’s probably too late; they’ve had time to set up alternative channels. They’ve also had a lot of success, which brings in more people.

  7. VietnamVet

    History is forgotten by those who didn’t live through it. I innately see the dangers of a nuclear conflict and am astonished at Democrats who are blasé about the restart of the Cold War 2.0. After 1917 and the 1930s there was a conscious decision by the Elite to erase inequality and give labor its due. This turned upside down starting with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Dissidents used cassette tapes to bring down the USSR. Smart phones are a hell of lot more useful. The French have a history. A middle class revolt is simmering across the West due the horrendous inequality and degrading quality of life. Something will trigger it in the USA. The only question is can unrestricted violence be avoided by restoring a people’s government. Will the Elite ever see this and preserve at least some of their wealth?

  8. mrtmbrnmn

    Les Gilets Jaunes are REAL, ACTUAL people. With real, actual grievances. And the government, their collaborating & sycophanting media, and the entire arrogant, elitist greedhead neo-liberal let-them-eat-debt ruling criminal enterprise fears them! When the government fears its people instead of the other way around, the seeds of revolution are planted and nurtured. Aux barricades! This could be contagious!

  9. Dave D'Rave

    Movements without leaders have been around for a while. I find it interesting that the Mainstream Media either doesn’t get it or pretends to not get it.

    Here’s the deal:

    -Leaders can be killed.
    -Leaders can be bribed.
    -Leaders can be blackmailed.
    -Leaders can be arrested.
    -Leaders can be extradited to some foreign country for “sexual assault”.

    That is why movements without leaders have an advantage.

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