Social Media, Collective Action and the Yellow Jacket Protests

The French tradition of collective action found a new platform this past week, as protests erupted over the newly instilled fuel tax.

The ‘gilet jaunes’ (yellow vests) are 170,000 members strong, a massive increase in scale from the riots against labour reforms in 2016 when 100,000 participated.

The French government is considering announcing a state of emergency after hundreds have been injured in the riots across France. President Emmanuel Macron has agreed to meet with the protestors, but maintains that the violence the movement has caused is not justified by the protestors’ demands.

The outraged French working class is calling for a diverse and incohesive number of demands which were gathered in a survey and posted online. For instance, in addition to eliminating the fuel tax, this civilian group is calling for a national minimum wage and the creation of a “citizens assembly,” whose proposals would be submitted directly to a referendum by governing officials.

Bloomberg made the comparison between the current French protests and the 2010-2012 Arab Spring. The article insinuated a possibility for the frenzy stirred up in France to spread to other areas including Brussels where almost 400 protesters, also wearing yellow jackets, occupied the streets last Friday.

Many claim that the protests are a result of what Bloomberg refers to as “opinion bubbles,” which are polarized places in the internet that fuel anger and encourage people to act collectively.

In addition to the protests, Macron is receiving critique for his financial history. The Facebook page “Gilets jaunes Paris 75,” liked by 8.5k users, posted a variety of media surrounding Macron and the riots, including an article which claims to outline Macron’s campaign finances.

The article states that “1.2% of donations alone accounted for 48% of the total amount of donations received.” This article is copy and pasted on various other news outlets across the web and this claim is uncited and entirely unsubstantiated.

While there is an ongoing investigation into the finances of Macron’s campaign, no official charges of corruption have been found. In addition, no other reliable sources have made similar claims about Macron’s campaign. This tactic of deploying fake news regarding Macron has served to fuel the tensions in these “opinion bubbles,” which has poured out onto the streets of France.

The journalism community is skeptical as to whether the “opinion bubbles” were partially formed by Russian hackers as the country has become famous for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and the separatist movement between Catalonia and Spain in December, 2017 and spreading disinformation on platforms such as Facebook. Currently, #giletjaunes is the second most-used hashtag by Russian influence networks on Twitter as tracked by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The fourth protest, “act 4,” is planned for December 8th in Paris. The Gilet Jaunes are gathering once again at the Champs Elysee. As of today, 24,000 have responded “interested” 3.6k have responded “going.”

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