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Gilets Jaunes and the two faces of Facebook

Facebook design allows popular ideas to be shared and expanded on – the dream of everyone having an equal political voice is very much alive in these digital citizens’ assemblies.

lead lead "Gilets Jaunes" face police officers on the Champs-Elysees during New Year's celebrations on January 1, 2019. Apaydin Alain/Press Association. All rights reserved.

For over a month now the Gilet Jaune movement has maintained its momentum, in the wake of attempts at repression by the security state, wintry weather which paralyses so many movements involving public occupations, and Macron’s pacification blandishments.

The fuel taxes have been cancelled and the minimum wage raised. But protests still happen every weekend, roundabouts are still occupied, snail blockages still occur and dashboards across the country still sport the Gilet Jaune.

It has become a symbol of international resistance. It is the raised fist, the red rose, the Guy Fawkes mask of a new wave of activism on both left and right. The Gilets Jaunes aren’t really about the fuel tax any more. Now they are about democracy. They are the talking point of the entire French Republic, and something that has become clear is that they have revived the ideas promulgated at the start of the decade about social media as a tool for initiating democratic change.

In How Democracy Ends David Runciman argues that Facebook is simultaneously one of the least and most democratic institutions that has ever existed. On the one hand it is a network of over 2 billion people coexisting in one place with notionally equal weight given to every voice. On the other, it is the plaything of one man and a small oligarchy of executives around him – and can be used as a tool to subvert democracy as the network effects it produces can be harnessed to spread conspiracy theories. The Gilets Jaunes manage to prove him right on both counts, though it seems the democratic positives outweigh the disadvantages.

Whose conspiracy?

Conspiracy theories and “fake news” have been a persistent undercurrent within this movement. After the terrorist attack in Strasbourg rumour mills began to churn and the idea that it was a false flag attack ordered by Macron to damage the movement was widely circulated, if not widely believed. The ‘false flag’ claim is one taken from the American online right that uses conspiracy theories to delegitimise opponents in a wholly undemocratic manner.

Other illiberal or undemocratic ideologies have been mobilised. The far-right has been very vocally supportive of the yellow jackets and thugs used the protests organised through Facebook as a way to commit acts of violence and express anti-migrant sentiment. Memes with unverified statistics about scrounging immigrants or the level of support for Islamist terror among Muslims also surface on their pages. Moderators like Gwen Yaya, Marc le Roux and So Lei La comb through posts to filter out racism, sexism and homophobia – but the sheer volume means they aren’t always successful. When their group has upwards of 170,000 members it is a herculean task.

The reaction of many, particularly in the liberal centre, to the movement has been to widely condemn it on the basis of the violence committed by a few “casseurs”. English language media outlets like The Times and Wired have engaged in conspiratorial thinking of their own, blaming the frequently cited twin bogeymen of Russia and Facebook for Macron’s plight.

Their instinct is that the movement is inherently undemocratic. Matt Navarra argued on the BBC that Facebook’s pivot to prioritising local news has created ‘perfect storm’ conditions for this mass mobilisation. He then implied people were reacting to the views of friends and family as though they were gospel and called the situation “dangerous”.  Ryan Broderick of Buzzfeed wrote an article making the claim that the Gilet Jaunes movement is a “Beast born almost entirely from Facebook”. The tone of the article and Navarra’s interview was of blame for Facebook and condemnation for the movement, mixed with a kind of condescending sympathy that these people are being manipulated by algorithms.

To argue this is to miss the point and ignore the historical context. The protests of 1968 occurred without the help of Facebook. So did anti-Vietnam war protests in America. Movements can occur in liberal democracies without the dark hand of algorithmic control and Russian disinformation being responsible. The Gilets Jaunes are an expression of anger at the status quo. Facebook is merely the means of expression of that anger, not the cause of it. If social media didn’t exist, it would organise through meetings of civil society organisations, printed propaganda and word of mouth. It probably wouldn’t be quite as large or adaptable, but it would certainly have happened. Zeynep Tufekci summarises it neatly in her book Twitter and Tear Gas when she says “Do metals cause cars? Does bronze cause statues? Metals do not make cars to come into being, just as bronze or marble does not turn into a statue by itself”. People are feeling the burn of stagnant wages and rising prices – that is why there has been an uprising.

Janus-facebook

This is not to say that Facebook is unimportant. After Brexit and the elections of Trump and Bolsanaro the dominant narrative surrounding social media is that it sows disinformation and polarises people, that it fractures democracy rather than helping it to heal. This was not always the way, at the start of the decade cyber-utopianism reigned. The Arab Spring, Occupy and the anti-austerity movements of Europe were leaderless revolutions – social media was how they organised and this new tool meant we could erase hierarchies that imposed themselves on us and exercise our democratic right against autocrats and the corporate and financial institutions that had stolen democracy from us.

But, as these movements died away, so too did the dream of the networked democratic revolution and it was replaced by the nightmare monsters of Putin’s troll farms, Cambridge Analytica, Bannon and Breitbart.

As discussed the Gilets Jaunes have vindicated the nightmare narrative to an extent. Antivaxxers have gained new exposure, conspiracy theories and antisemitic disinformation about the global elite and Islamophobic disinformation about migrants has been produced and shared. But, what has been overlooked by much of the media is the way in which they used Facebook as a tool for improving democracy.

Facebook allows both the form and the content of the Gilets Jaunes to be impressively democratic. The GJ movement organises through colère (anger) groups which have a number attached corresponding to the department – e.g colère 10 organises in Aube and colère 73 organises in Savoie. These groups will have a few thousand members which correspond roughly to the active, or at least supportive local population. Then there are much larger national groups like **Gilet Jaune**, Je Suis Gilet Jaune and many others which have hundreds of thousands of members and act as a talking shop for the entire movement.

There are no leaders. Of course, people end up in leadership roles, the admins, local organisers and media spokespeople come to mind – but ultimately there is no hierarchy. Not only is it leaderless but Facebook itself provides the infrastructure for democratic process. An informal democracy has been produced through likes, shares and petition signatures. Of course, this is by no means perfect, but the design of Facebook has allowed the most popular ideas to rise to the top and be shared and expanded on – the dream of everyone having equal political voice is very much alive in these digital citizens’ assemblies.

The Citizens Referendum Initiative (RIC)

This kind of pure direct democracy isn’t necessarily desirable when the twin principles of our system are democracy and liberalism.  Four people voting to hang the fifth because of the colour of their skin is still democracy – but it is clearly an undesirable outcome for a just system to produce. However, the content of the GJ movement – the outcomes they are trying to bring forth are explicitly democratic. The calls for a RIC (citizens referendum initiative) are growing in popularity. The central demand of this initiative is quite detailed. They are calling for:

“the creation of an accessible and effective site, supervised by an independent body, where people can make a proposal for a law. If this bill obtains 700,0000 signatures then the bill will have to be discussed, amended and completed by the National Assembly which will be under obligation (one year to the day after the 700,000 signatures are obtained) to submit the proposal to the French people for a vote.”

What the Gilets Jaunes are demanding, is an extension of democracy. And their demand is aided and abetted by Facebook. Even if you don’t agree with their proposals, the very fact that people are using Facebook to demand constitutional amendments which are consistent with the broader values of a liberal democracy is evidence that social media can be used to the public good.

Many to many democracy

Then there are the protests; the right to free assembly is core to a functioning democracy, and people are using Facebook to organise in this manner. When the protests are under way, Twitter is a more useful tool for understanding what is going on where thanks to accounts like @GiletsJaunesGo which aggregates the live tweets of people on the ground. As with the uprisings at the start of the decade – here is an example of many to many communication allowing people to exercise their democratic rights.

Indeed, if anyone has acted against democracy in this case, it is not Facebook, but the French state.  The repeated use of teargas, water cannons and armoured police vehicles against peaceful protesters is nothing short of repressive. Michel is a young Gilet Jaune training to go into the army, but despite these ambitions he thinks the use of force against the movement is too much, and questions why terrorism powers have been used against Gilets Jaunes.

He and his two friends Millie and Bryan travelled 300km to be in Paris on December 15 – Millie says the geriatric hospital she works in has become a business, Michel that being unemployed is very hard. Both are optimistic that change is possible and believe they are on the cusp of a democratic shift in power towards the people. 

The resistance of the powerful, which in at least 22 cases may have been illegal, reveals the struggle of the GJs for what it is, an attempt to reclaim and entrench democracy. Facebook, Twitter and the other tech giants have a great many sins to answer for and they should not be let off the hook for what they allow to happen on their platforms. But the current protests in France highlight the usefulness of many to many communications outside government control in organising protest movements to protect democracy. For all the movement’s flaws, they have done us a service in reviving the idea that social media can institute democratic change.


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