Social media is the new force in politics

The gilets jaunes protests have been organised through Facebook and commentators question how healthy this is.

Published Last updated

Many feel Facebook has been hijacked by extremists, noting the part it played in Brexit and the election of Donald Trump and several other populist leaders.

Social media techniques are not hard. Loïc, a spokesman for the foulards rouges Facebook group (article above) said it was easy to harness the site’s algorithms.

“They used to prioritise pages over local groups, but now it is the opposite. It’s easy to build a presence in a few days.”

He says IT professionals will always adapt to play the game. But several deaths, many serious injuries and the impact on the economy show that it is not a game.

Olivier Costa, research professor at the CNRS in Bordeaux, says the danger is that Facebook amplifies emotions:

“People who have never learned the rules of formal debate start discussing complex issues and it becomes heated.

“Soon there’s no debate, no negotiation, just a lot of people stating their opinions.”

He says that as a result the demands put forward by the gilets jaunes were not logical, coherent, or sometimes even practical.

“Social media amplifies and simplifies complex issues. The gilets jaunes went from chatting on Facebook to extreme action without talking to the authorities and that’s new to politics. The government was caught off guard.”

He says it is a principle that leaders do not negotiate in the face of violence and threats.

“So Macron refused to speak on the subject, and on the other side, the gilets jaunes felt their emotions were important and had to be expressed.”

The situation revealed a paradox: people might be asking whether the violence was needed to persuade President Macron to abandon unpopular tax hikes and to raise the minimum wage, but the government was cornered. There was little else they could do.

“The government didn’t see it coming.

“They ignored the rumbling discontent about the 80km speed limit, the drop in ISF.

“There was a lack of political experience, and Macron didn’t want to be seen as weak like Hollande. He wanted to just get on and impose his programme from the start.

“He threw away much of his social capital, so he came over as arrogant instead of intelligent and thoughtful. He came across as a snob.”

Mr Costa says politicians will have to adapt: “Social media is a new power, it is a louder noise from the crowd. Politicians will have to pay more attention to public opinion.

“This could be the beginning of a transformation. People could get more involved in politics and civil life, and politicians could begin to listen more.”