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France's 'Yellow Vests': How Facebook fuels the fight

Screengrab, Facebook | The 'Fly Rider Infos Blocages' Facebook group.

France has struggled to douse Yellow Vest fuel-tax protests that have laid waste to symbols like the Champs-Élysées in a pall of tear gas and car fires. All over the country, Facebook users who lit the spark have been fanning the flames in real-time.

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Back in October, months into a burgeoning campaign to halt new taxes on fuel, Jacline Mouraud issued a clarion call, apparently from the comfort of her own home, in a video she posted to Facebook. Addressing French President Emmanuel Macron directly, she demanded, “When will the hounding of drivers, that you have put into place since you arrived, end?!”

The silver-maned 51-year-old’s sundry list of grievances for “Monsieur Macron” included the rising price of diesel, the traffic radars proliferating on French roads and a congestion tax being mooted for big cities in order to fight pollution. “What do you do with French people’s cash?” she asked repeatedly, angrily, before entreating her Facebook audience to “each make your own video to say that you have had it”. Mouraud’s appeal clearly struck a chord: it racked up 6.2 million views and more than 263,000 shares on Facebook.

Jacline Mouraud, Facebook

In the weeks that followed, the “Yellow Vest” movement flourished on the social network, spurring more than 1,500 Facebook-related events locally and across the country on the first day of mass protests alone, on November 17.

Some of the most popular Yellow Vest Facebook groups have come to rival the populations of significant French cities. “La France en colère!!!” (France in anger), a group created by Eric Drouet, a 33-year-old truck driver, boasts more than 200,000 members.

'Filter bubble'

French social media journalist Vincent Glad has called Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg the Yellow Vest movement’s “best ally”.

“The movement has without a doubt been helped by the new Facebook algorithm that overemphasises content from groups to the detriment of content posted by pages (and therefore by media outlets),” Glad wrote for the left-leaning daily Libération. “After a few likes for a group, we find ourselves submerged with that group’s content in our news feeds. The new algo pushed the Yellow Vests into a ‘filter bubble’ in which they hardly see content anymore that isn’t yellow.”

Amid criticism for its role in spreading “Fake News”, not least in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook sought to shift its technical emphasis away from traditional media and towards interactions between individual users. In his February 2017 letter to the social-media behemoth’s users, a post entitled “Building Global Community”, Zuckerberg touted the role Facebook, and notably Facebook groups, could play in “establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in collective decision-making”.

While reporters covering the “Yellow Vest” protests have been targets of violence, with journalists viewed askance as elites out of touch with the voiceless masses the movement aspires to represent, Facebook groups have stepped in to fill a perceived void. The social network’s semblance of transparency, and the unparalleled sense of immediacy it provides, has fed the movement’s urge to play by its own rules.

When “Yellow Vest” representatives including Drouet met with Environment Minister François de Rugy last Tuesday at Macron’s invitation, the trucker-turned-Facebook-personality dared film the meeting in secret, broadcasting the proceedings and their aftermath on Facebook Live for nearly 90 minutes without authorisation.

The movement’s attachment to just that sort of uncompromising mass participation was on full display three days later when Jason Herbert, one of the movement’s proclaimed (although disputed) spokespeople, met Prime Minister Édouard Philippe. After arriving 35 minutes late to his Friday meeting at the PM’s office, Herbert stayed only a few minutes before leaving again. “I asked several times that the meeting be filmed and broadcast live on television. That was refused,” Herbert explained to reporters after cutting short the talks.

'Uncorrupted, unfiltered'

“Right now in France, traditional TV is trailing a social [media] sphere seen as uncorrupted by the elites, unfiltered, and more authentic,” French journalist and Stanford research fellow Frederic Filloux wrote Monday. “For the demonstrators … because Facebook is the expression of the people, then it doesn’t lie. When it carries obvious fake news, such as images of protesters shot two years ago [in] Spain or spreads rumours of tanks ready to move against Yellow Vests (15,000 interactions), the quick debunking by mainstream media is lost in the noise,” Filloux added.

Social media has made veritable celebrities of a handful of Facebook-savvy torchbearers, with some even invited to provide added insight on primetime TV. Maxime Nicolle, who calls himself “Fly Rider” on Facebook, is one such sudden celebrity. He posts Facebook Live videos that can draw audiences into the hundreds of thousands to watch him expound on the movement, sometimes while smoking or munching on crisps.

Facebook | Fly Rider's Facebook cover photo.

“They aren’t even capable of keeping hold of their Arc de Triomphe,” Nicolle, a gas mask slung around his neck, said in a video filmed live Saturday beneath the Paris monument. Panning the pavement for spent tear-gas cartridges deployed against protesters during Saturday’s violent clashes, Nicolle chides law enforcement. “They deploy tear gas from everywhere. They don’t even know what to do anymore. They are completely lost,” Nicolle says, occasionally interrupted by apparent fans off-camera, in the video seen by 150,000 on Facebook. Standing in a crowd of fluorescent-clad demonstrators, Nicolle refers to Macron by the diminutive “Manu”, warning the president that protesters “will not give up” and accusing the French leader of “starving” and “killing his people”.

As it happens, “Fly Rider” has been accused of playing fast and loose with the truth, crossing a fine line between bearing witness and spreading unverified information. In one Facebook Live over the weekend, he repeatedly held that police officers had disguised themselves as destructive troublemakers among the demonstrators and that video footage provided evidence of the ruse. But after reviewing several of the videos in question, France 24’s Observers could not conclude they corroborated those allegations.

Indeed, the Yellow Vest movement’s symbiosis with Facebook is a tale of social media at its best and worst alike. Jacline Mouraud’s experience is a striking illustration. As the fed-up unknown who gave voice to popular angst in October with her lo-fi video manifesto, she became one of the amorphous “Yellow Vest” movement’s standard-bearers. But that sudden acclaim has manifested an uglier side.

“From today, ALL THREATS made against me will be subject to a COMPLAINT FILED [with the police],” Mouraud wrote on Facebook on November 19, just a month after her celebrated post and two days after the first national “Yellow Vest” demonstrations. “My video crystallised the suffering of the people, but it also crystallised jealousy, calumny, defamation. I’m not here to be insulted, for people to invent my life story. At last word, apparently I’m paid by the government!” she wrote.

Death threats

Mouraud told Agence France-Presse on Monday that she had already filed six complaints with police for death threats. She said the threats worsened after she added her signature to an op-ed over the weekend in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper alongside other members of the “Gilets jaunes libres”, the “Free Yellow Vests”, making proposals to end the crisis. The group was invited to meet the prime minister on Tuesday to discuss their proposals, but it ultimately declined the invitation, citing threats received on social media. Mouraud had suggested to AFP that the threats were coming from elements within the Yellow Vest movement itself.

As the movement began to take hold in the streets back on November 17, French social media journalist Jules Darmanin tweeted ironically: “The Yellow Vests materialised thanks to Facebook groups. It is therefore logical that they end up the same way: poorly moderated, corrupted by toxic elements and filled with people with different visions for the same group.”

The future of the movement may or may not bear out that pessimistic prophecy. But with Prime Minister Philippe now poised to suspend the fuel-tax hike that spurred the revolt, the contempt-turned-community via Facebook can claim a measure of victory. Perhaps the writing was on the wall, so to speak.

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