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Why did the “Gilets Jaunes” fail to use Twitter?

Helena Saadeh – Digital Data in a Societal Context – Sciences Po, Paris

Reaching their peak in November 2018, The Gilets Jaunes or Yellow Vests protested against reforms made by the government and had a list of revendications they wanted to implement. However, physical protests went beyond the streets of Paris and took part in the virtual world of Social Media, notably Twitter. The problématique for this paper “How did the Gilets Jaunes Fail to tweet their demands?” will be defended by the argument that the Gilets Jaunes’ set of revendications have shifted from raising the demands to mainly attacking President Macron, on Twitter. This research matters because throughout the years, Twitter, a more public and accessible platform, helped many other movements and revolutions to see the light such as the Egyptian revolution, the “MeToo” movement, and solidarity hashtags like recently #NotreDame or #SriLankaAttacks. This paper will study how the Gilets Jaunes, on the other hand, did not use the maximum outcome of Twitter for their pressures and demands; it will cover in depth the methods used to collect the data of the four hashtags used on the sixth of March 2019. In addition, it will highlight the findings which support the main argument of the paper and the related five academic readings. The paper will be concluded with implications and questions for further research.

Starting with the methods, I used TAGS first to collect 395 original tweets divided among four different hashtags. I reduced the search to two main languages: French, because I wanted to see the data of those who are French or related somehow to the language or the culture, and English because I wanted to grasp the international data that can be understood by a majority and see the countries that are taking part in the Twitter protest. All the tweets are gathered on the sixth of March 2019 since it was a Wednesday and I wanted to see the intensity of the movement during the Middle of the week, between the previous and the following protest. I collected the data of four hashtags: 9 #YellowVests with a minimum of 1000 followers to have a better perspective on the international twitter movement form people who have a sort of influence, 69 #GiletsJaunes with a minimum of 7 followers to study the main tweets of the original movement, 234 #GrandDébat with a minimum of 1 follower to see if the protestors projected their demands using another hashtag, and 83 #MacronDémission with a minimum of 4 followers to see how the users used it as a branch of the main movement as it supports my main argument of the shifting between the demands and attacking Macron. My argument is a big picture of how the movement shifted in their focus and the analysis I made is one piece of the bigger puzzle. Nevertheless, this method gave me a wider perspective and support for the claims the Gilets Jaunes make. I chose this method because it covers a range of influencers and any other citizens, it covers even if only for a day, the French perspective and the international one, and finally, the four hashtags I used are both direct and indirect to the main Gilets Jaunes movement which helped by seeing how they invade other movements and trends with their tweets. I came across many limitations but some of them helped me finding the best research method I could use. Even though I believe that this research could be more accurate if it was done on a longer term and not just on a one-day focus, it gave me a better perspective of what the Gilets Jaunes’ daily Twitter feed looks like.

With that method, and going through the tweets by hand this time, I analysed three types of findings: the location, the content, and the demands. Starting with the location and with the help of TAGS, I found it really interesting that in the 395 tweets I recuperated, #GrandDébat had the majority of tweets in French and the only others were with no location. The #YellowVests had surprisingly tweets from the United States, Canada, other countries and even with no location or weird ones, but no tweet from France. #MacronDemission has been mainly tweeted by people with weird or non-existing locations, with a good number of tweets from France and a few from around the world, notably from Canada as some had opposing views to Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister and they were unrelated to the Yellow Vests movement. #GiletsJaunes is very similar to the others with a majority of tweets from France and a few from other countries, notably from England with tweets related to the Brexit movement. Having in mind that around 65% of the Tweets are coming from France itself, and some of the non-existing locations are most probably bots. Having more than half of the tweets coming from France supports that the movement is based in that country and that they are directing it. I moved to the next step: the content. The statistics proved that the people who are tweeting and who are mainly French have lost focus on their main cause with only 9% of the 395 tweets asking for change and revidications. With Twitter being a platform for people who want to share their opinions and thoughts, 34.9% of the tweeters followed that rule and shared notes that are neither attacking Macron nor promoting revendications. the second highest percentage would be 19.66% and they are the tweets unrelated to the movement. These tweets can be about other countries’ debates such as Trudeau in Canada, Trump, or the Brexit movement or with around 4.17% they can be marketing tweets about a certain product the user is trying to promote by using viral hashtags . Among other tweets there was the anti-Gilets Jaunes using the hashtags to attack them. Finally, 9.95% and slightly higher than the demands’ percentage comes the tweets attacking Macron. this different might go unnoticed for some, however, if we remove all other tweets and compare only the attacks with the demands, it would give us a rate of more than half the tweets attacking Macron: 52.5%. Now, With the 9% of the demands I found, I thought I should further investigate to see how they are tweeted online. The demands I found were various and related to mainly health, ecology, taxes, security, housing, and other social improvements. However, and despite being sure to retweets, some of the data I found was copied from one user and tweeted many times as an original tweet by many others. In addition, the way these demands were embedded in the tweets was not very clear. Most of the demands were not formulated in a straight way asking for change or a certain demand, they were mainly mentioned in a bigger context while sharing the link for articles or attacking Macron.

As for the literature review, I would like to start with “Social Media in Politics”, edited by Bogdan and Monica Patrut. In a series of case studies, the editors have stated that activism as a general concept has evolved to reach a trans-national network of people fighting for the same cause (Patrut and Patrut 2014:30) which is proven to be true by the chart of the countries gathered in my study with more than 5 countries other than France taking part in the online movement of only 395 tweets. To have a clearer vision of the Yellow Vests movement itself, the book also mentioned three types of social movements: the segmentary, the networked, and the polycentric (Patrut and Patrut 2014:36). If we analyse the 395 tweets, The Gilets Jaunes fit into the last two categories. They are networked: having many linkages that connect them all in different countries and using different hashtags. In addition, they are polycentric since they have no specific leader or influencer who leads the movement or represent it. The latter would be one of the reasons the movement shifted its focus from demands to attacks. Another notion I found interesting is the “psychological factor” people encounter in online protests: Anger as an emotional stimulus that helps people spread their thoughts rapidly online and mobilize the movement (Patrut and Patrut 2014:43). Most of the tweets were about the violence that happens during the movement or angry thoughts about the situation as a whole. This notion is somehow related to the fact that, on social media , users easily believe what they read and what they see on their feed during a protest.
Therefore, the use of anger as a stimulus will lead to a shift in some users’ behavior and stance on the movement, making them more or less likely to take part in it, depending on the each user’s background (Patrut and Patrut 2014:365). On the other hand, Roula Khalaf in her study “The fading colors of France’s Gilets Jaunes” shares with us the decreasing number of Yellow Vests supporters from 71% to 50% in November (Khalaf, 2019). The author also adds to the analysis another reason that supports my claim: the headlines are no longer limited to violence alone, the movement is causing tensions between France and other countries, Italy for instance, and the riots have escalated to anti-semitism attacks, notably with the French writer Alain Finkielkraut (Khalaf, 2019). Concentrating more on the algorithm studies, Sébastian Seibt noted that the use of groups on Facebook for the Yellow Vests supporters and their constant sharing of information had gained them visibility and popularity on people’s feeds (Seibt, 2019). This notion does not only abides by Facebook in this case, but it is very similar to the study conducted on Twitter. The more people post, the more the hashtag or the tweet is seen by people outside the movement, the more it becomes a bait to trigger more followers. Also, Seibt talks about the use of the new media instead of the traditional one since it gives more freedom and allows the Gilets Jaunes to share live videos and make other people see the protests from their perspective instead of waiting for traditional media and fighting with the editor in chief on what should or should not be shared (Seibt, 2019). This will lead us to the fourth article by Lewis “The Tension Between Professional Control and Open Participation”. The author mentions the concept of “convergence culture” which explains that grassroots are managing to gain influence by spreading their views on social media platforms and interact with other potential users (Lewis 2012:847). The “participation as an ideology” (Lewis, 2012:848) explains the motives behind some of the movements posts such as violence acts against them in order to spread some influence and empathy over the As for the literature review, I would like to start with “Social Media in Politics”, edited by Bogdan and Monica Patrut. In a series of case studies, the editors have stated that activism as a general concept has evolved to reach a trans-national network of people fighting for the same cause (Patrut and Patrut 2014:30) which is proven to be true by the chart of the countries gathered in my study with more than 5 countries other than France taking part in the online movement of only 395 tweets. To have a clearer vision of the Yellow Vests movement itself, the book also mentioned three types of social movements: the segmentary, the networked, and the polycentric (Patrut and Patrut 2014:36). If we analyse the 395 tweets, The Gilets Jaunes fit into the last two categories. They are networked: having many linkages that connect them all in different countries and using different hashtags. In addition, they are polycentric since they have no specific leader or influencer who leads the movement or represent it. The latter would be one of the reasons the movement shifted its focus from demands to attacks. Another notion I found interesting is the “psychological factor” people encounter in online protests: Anger as an emotional stimulus that helps people spread their thoughts rapidly online and mobilize the movement (Patrut and Patrut 2014:43). Most of the tweets were about the violence that happens during the movement or angry thoughts about the situation as a whole. This notion is somehow related to the fact that, on social media , users easily believe what they read and what they see on their feed during a protest. Therefore, the use of anger as a stimulus will lead to a shift in some users’ behavior and stance on the movement, making them more or less likely to take part in it, depending on the each user’s background (Patrut and Patrut 2014:365). On the other hand, Roula Khalaf in her study “The fading colors of France’s Gilets Jaunes” shares with us the decreasing number of Yellow Vests supporters from 71% to 50% in November (Khalaf, 2019). The author also adds to the analysis another reason that supports my claim: the headlines are no longer limited to violence alone, the movement is causing tensions between France and other countries, Italy for instance, and the riots have escalated to anti-semitism attacks, notably with the French writer Alain Finkielkraut (Khalaf, 2019). Concentrating more on the algorithm studies, Sébastian Seibt noted that the use of groups on Facebook for the Yellow Vests supporters and their constant sharing of information had gained them visibility and popularity on people’s feeds (Seibt, 2019). This notion does not only abides by Facebook in this case, but it is very similar to the study conducted on Twitter. The more people post, the more the hashtag or the tweet is seen by people outside the movement, the more it becomes a bait to trigger more followers. Also, Seibt talks about the use of the new media instead of the traditional one since it gives more freedom and allows the Gilets Jaunes to share live videos and make other people see the protests from their perspective instead of waiting for traditional media and fighting with the editor in chief on what should or should not be shared (Seibt, 2019). This will lead us to the fourth article by Lewis “The Tension Between Professional Control and Open Participation”. The author mentions the concept of “convergence culture” which explains that grassroots are managing to gain influence by spreading their views on social media platforms and interact with other potential users (Lewis 2012:847). The “participation as an ideology” (Lewis, 2012:848) explains the motives behind some of the movements posts such as violence acts against them in order to spread some influence and empathy over the users and control the content of the tweets to support their cause and generate followers. However, on the long run, this strategy will have counter-effects and people will no longer be interested in following the same news every week instead of seeing the changes and demands that are the core of the movement. The last reading would be Nashmi’s “Instagram after a newsworthy event”, with a focus on his mentioning of “uses and gratifications” and Twitter’s shift. The uses and gratification model states that people will focus on their ultimate goal and work in its favor (Nashmi 2017:4). However, after studying the 395 tweets, the focus of the Gilets Jaunes seems to be divided among the 8 categories of content that I gathered. Those uses and gratifications model that was not well used by the movement have cause to shift Twitter from a main platform to follow the protests to just a background tool (Nashmi 2017:4) even though the protests are still happening. The Gilets Jaunes, a newsworthy event, still leads headlines and news stories, but its exclusivity and pertinence is decreasing every week and Twitter is being used to keep the trend visible instead of using Twitter as a pressure tool.

To conclude, It is important to assess that the study is an ongoing case that can always be improved. For the future, it would be more accurate to gather a bigger number of tweets, and to study the users’ profile in depth to see the degree of their involvement in the Gilets Jaunes movement. Also, this study was Twitter based, therefore it would be interesting to see the level of harmony between the online protestors and the ones who go down the streets and study the similarities or differences between the two. As results, the findings can be set into three parts. The first would be that the Gilets Jaunes online protestors gathered many solidarity tweets and retweets for the wrong focus. The second one is that the demands found are written in so many layers that they became unclear. The Third one highlights the diversity of hashtags and personal causes that are embedded in the movement. For other movements, I recommend the following solutions: Media division of platforms, the use of polls for direct results, and the targeted keywords in tweets. The media division of platforms helps organizing online protests. People can use Facebook to share an event or invitations for physical or virtual protests, the same people can use Twitter to form a media pressure by sharing their demands and revendications, they can use WhatsApp to share the news stories. This would help the content of the Tweet, in this case, to be more concentrated on the demands instead of varied among many other categories. The use of poll can help make the demands of the tweeters more direct and clear. They can ask people to vote for their priority demands so they would have a clearer idea on what to focus on, or they can simply gather statistics to see how many people support a certain change. The targeted keywords in tweets is more of a technical aspect. the algorithm work on keywords and tags, therefore if a movement wants more visibility, they should create a wave of keywords that are directly related to their cause and share them on Twitter. For the Gilets Jaunes, instead of #MacronDemission, they could have shifted towards #TaxCuts or #HealthCare as keywords to the main hashtag #GiletsJaunes. This study does not deny that the Yellow Vests lacked visibility or power. On the opposite, this research helps fill the gaps in their virtual protests for future improvement and pressure tool. Even though protests are a part of democracy, a lot of riots and violence take place on the ground. Most of the violence acts are stopped and offenders are arrested. Can we say then that Twitter protests are a part of an e-democracy? And if so, who has the right to arrest the offenders, the bullies, the bots, if they were even possible to track?

Bibliography:

Al Nashmi, E. (2017). From Selfies to Media Events. [online] Taylor & Francis. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21670811.2017.1306787 [Accessed 5 May 2019].

Khalaf, R. (2019). The fading colours of France’s ‘gilets jaunes’ | Financial Times. Ft.com. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/2e12647a-3467-11e9-bd3a-8b2a211d90d5 .

Lewis, S. (2012). THE TENSION BETWEEN PROFESSIONAL CONTROL AND OPEN PARTICIPATION. [online] Taylor & Francis. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1369118X.2012.674150 [Accessed 5 May 2019].

Pătruț, B. and Pătruț, M. (2014). Social media in politics.

Seibt, S. (2019). Gilets jaunes : de l’algorithme Facebook à la rue. https://www.france24.com/fr/20181203-reseaux-sociaux-gilets-jaunes-algorithme-facebook-diffusion-groupes-colere.

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