The Yellow Vest movement that swept across France in the past six weeks has provoked intense debates over elitism, economic inequality, and the nature of protest in this country. But it has also put platforms such as Facebook and Twitter under a microscope.
Without a doubt, the Yellow Vests (or “gilets jaunes”) were initially propelled by Facebook groups. But the question now is whether we are seeing a repeat of past abuses or manipulations of social media by outside groups.
France-based researchers who have been studying these questions have come to surprising conclusions. In spite of growing public perception that social media is often used in nefarious ways, these researchers believe that in this case such outsider influence has been minimal and served mainly as an excuse to delegitimize the protests.
The data was compiled by a team of associate professors at the University of Toulouse: Nikos Smyrnaios, Brigitte Sebbah, Lucie Loubère, Natacha Souillard, and Laurent Thiong-Kay. They have been studying the evolution of traditional media and social media as it affects coverage and conversation around the Yellow Vest movement.
The group published preliminary findings on November 26 and a follow-up report on December 7. In an interview, Smyrnaios said while there may have been some influence at the margins, it would be a big mistake to attribute the rise of the Yellow Vests to social media manipulation and fake news.
“The idea that this movement only exists because Facebook changed its algorithms to put more Groups in people’s News Feeds isn’t supported,” he said.
There has been growing concern that the forces we saw in the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. and in the Brexit vote are again at work in France. The French government announced it was conducting an investigation into possible outside influences in this case. On Medium, French writer and researcher Frederic Filloux looked at “How Facebook Is Fueling The French Populist Rage.” An in-depth piece on BuzzFeed concluded that Facebook’s decision to tweak its algorithm to show more Groups helped fuel the fury: “Due to the way algorithm changes made earlier this year interacted with the fierce devotion in France to local and regional identity, the country is now facing some of the worst riots in many years — and in Paris, the worst in half a century.”
Without a doubt, some outside forces are trying to seize the conversation. French security researcher Baptiste Robert (who tweets at Elliott Alderson @fs0c131y) has been capturing hundreds of thousands of tweets over the past few weeks as he tracks the explosion of English-language messages with hashtags related to the protests. The tweets with the most reach and influence are coming from the Twitter accounts of a Polish nationalist, a Turkish breaking news account, and a pro-Trump follower who is part of the QAnon conspiracy theorists, Robert found.
Twitter seems particularly easy to game, thanks to bots:
During the last 18h, @MacDemission had 534 interactions (post, retweet, reply, quote) on Twitter. It's 0,5 interactions per minute. Obviously, this account is a #bot #misinformation #fakeNews #GiletsJaunes pic.twitter.com/ZiqAqfaB9C
— Elliot Alderson (@fs0c131y) December 24, 2018
Much of the English-language commentary has been driven by Russia Today accounts, or that of people such as Katie Hopkins, a right-wing British commentator who once appeared on the U.K.’s version of The Apprentice. She is a big public supporter of right-wing politicians such as Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump.
That said, even Robert is dubious that there has been a coordinated effort to try to influence the Yellow Vests. He notes that it’s ultimately quite difficult to attribute the source of the numerous accounts that have popped up on Twitter. Plus, it’s not clear that members of the Yellow Vests themselves are using Twitter all that much.
Rather, these tweets seem primarily directed at people outside France in order to create an even greater appearance of chaos.
“I don’t see something well-organized,” Robert said. “I don’t see that Russia is trying to influence them. You have some Russian accounts for sure. But these accounts are [from] a lot of personalities from Europe, and they are doing this to serve their own propaganda.”
For the University of Toulouse studies, researchers used the open source tool Iramuteq. One of the group’s initial findings was that the French media had a mistaken view of what was driving the conversation around the Yellow Vests. While there was a lot of focus on a gas tax set to take effect in January, the researchers found that the concerns of the Yellow Vests were much more extensive and fundamental: shrinking purchasing power, lack of rural infrastructure, diminished public benefits, and a sense the government had forgotten them.
“The media struggles to cover precisely the phenomenon whose nature is not so heterogeneous,” one report notes.
The studies also make an important differentiation between the conversations on Facebook and those on Twitter. The latter is far more confrontational, an open platform where people of various ideologies attack each other, often using vicious rhetoric. In contrast, while the discussions on Facebook can be angry, the discussions are mostly aimed at venting feelings with like-minded members of groups and organizing protests.
On Facebook, there seems to be a pervasive desire for a citizens’ referendum, or some way to create an electoral structure that would allow people to express themselves at the ballot box on a more regular basis. The country currently elects a president and National Assembly every five years. There is no equivalent of the midterm elections that were just held in the U.S. to let voters express themselves before the end of a president’s term.
With Macron’s popularity at historic lows less than two years into his term, the Yellow Vests are frustrated by the idea that it may be three more years before they can render a verdict at the ballot box, the studies say.
As to the fundamental question of interference, the second study stresses: “in the corpus that we analyzed, we did not detect any significant traces of misinformation, like the many rumors and information that has been identified by the media. At most, we have spotted discussions about possible provocations by the police that would have provoked violent incidents to discredit the movement, a classic of this type of social sequence.”
Smyrnaios says he is skeptical of most related studies, such as the one reported on by the London Times that was conducted by New Knowledge, a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm specializing in misinformation and founded in 2015 by former National Security Agency employees.
Under the headline “Russian accounts seek to stir up racial tensions in France,” the story says New Knowledge has tracked 2,000 accounts that have shown “behavior patterns that reveal Russian control.” Smyrnaios said such conclusions have tended to come from sources outside France, in this case by a company with a business interest in pushing the narrative of rampant manipulation on the internet.
Within France, he says, efforts to paint the Yellow Vests as simply anti-environment or the result of external manipulation seem motivated by a desire to brush off the protests.
“It was a political argument in order to disqualify this movement, to say it was an artificial movement,” he said. “But you wouldn’t have a social movement like this if people were really happy in the world in which they live.”