Facebook and the Gilets Jaunes: Revolution in the Age of Social Media

The Parisian riots of May 1968 were hatched in the city’s cafés, just like the ones in June 1832, March 1871, and February 1934. But the “yellow vests” movement has broken away from this historical precedent. For the very first time, the uprising was born on social media before spilling out onto the street.

In 1962, Marshall McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy, a premonitory work that proved to be accurate. In his work, the Canadian sociologist explains the history of the West through its technical innovations. Before McLuhan, two schools of philosophical thought were at loggerheads over whose prophecy was correct. The idealists, inspired by Plato, believed that ideas governed our fates — a stance that always pleases intellectuals. However, Marx suggested that our material condition defined our place on the social spectrum, despite our best intentions. This all changed when McLuhan announced that, without Gutenberg’s printing press the Germans would never have read the Bible, the Reform would never have taken place, nor would the Counter-Reform. As a result, there would have been no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, and no modernity.

Today, following McLuhan’s logic, we see the mass media — an expression and a concept he made popular – are ripping us from the Gutenberg galaxy to welcome a new era in which humanity finds itself united around television screens. The sociologist also suggested a political and philosophical distinction between those who continue living in the Gutenberg galaxy through ignorance or as victims of this shift, and those who escape it. Essentially this distinction is one of generations, which explains the theory’s wild success with the rebellious youth of the 1960s.

In our current period of Facebook and Twitter, it is hard not to think of McLuhan, or of Zuckerberg — our contemporary Gutenberg. The former’s hypothesis seems easier to prove today than at the time it was put forward. We have undeniably entered an era in which our immediately available means of communication determine our personal and collective behaviors. Social media offers everyone, regardless of where or when, an unprecedented audience and universality. While there are still a handful of unconnected tribes still holding out, there is little to worry about. I recently learned new satellites will soon ensure high-speed internet is available even in the deepest recesses of the Amazon and Papua New Guinea.

But what does this actually change? Everything, in fact. For example, as far back as Ancient Greece, women have demanded dignity and equal treatment. But the Twitter soundbox made this plight into a global revolution, and is transforming our societies in ways that go beyond national cultures and social boundaries. The #MeToo movement is changing the West, but also Asia, by consistently relying on the same vocabulary, the coded and universal language of our smartphones. And in France, a form of revolution led by some of the poorest and socially unrecognized has become an uncoordinated uprising, with no leader, doctrine, or program other than posts on Facebook.

The movement seems to have been started by a Breton accordionist who posted a video on his Facebook page protesting the rise in gas prices. This was coupled with a photo in which he wore a yellow vest — a warning sign and an item all French drivers are required by law to keep in their vehicles. In the space of just three weeks, the message was shared by several million people online. The rest, as they say, is history: riots in Paris and beyond, and a government wavering before giving in.

The most remarkable part of these new social movements is just how unpredictable they are. Neither the government nor the traditional media saw it coming because the means of communication and organization were not those used in the past. Before the Zuckerberg galaxy, social movements obeyed instructions from leaders who acted as go-betweens with the organizations which in turn were structured according to certain thoughts and demands. Today, everything has changed. We find ourselves in the most anarchistic spontaneity, to the point that the enlightened elite were caught short, not only during the movement but also afterwards, as they were unable to understand what the protesters were asking for. The composition and demands are heterogeneous, but perhaps the objective of the movement is simply the movement in itself. During the events of May 1968 in Paris — a relatively organized student rebellion — placards proclaimed “Banning is banned.” The “yellow vests” looking for a unifying slogan could well chant “Outrage is an imperative!”

If history has meaning, what sense can be found in the often ill-informed spontaneity stirred up by social media? Should we see some “progress” in the fact that anyone and everyone can speak out, and that everything is equal because it takes place online? It is not inherently regrettable that the lofty elite are being challenged by those at the bottom, but not to the point of denying reality and considering falsehoods as equivalent to the truth. We should be concerned, even though the answer is unclear. While we wait, knowledge and awareness are being brutally shaken up by the new era, and politics even more so. Demands were, until now, relatively tempered by representative democracy supported by authorities that allowed dialogue.

But when the American president goes over the heads of institutions, when the yellow vests forget there is a parliament in France, and when feminists condemn everything without involving the justice system, we are left a little puzzled. How are we to live peacefully in society, or a world, without institutions on hand to moderate? The Zuckerberg galaxy kindles passions while adding a risk of violence, which makes us think of the civil wars in the Gutenberg galaxy. It appears that material progress is one thing, but moral progress is quite another. And while this is more or less common knowledge, it is useful to be reminded from time to time.

  • Up to the last paragraph, the article made some sens. But, of course, France-Amerique being very liberal, can’t forget to put down the U.S. president. Millions of “basket of deplorable” voted for him: they got fed up with the elites (right and left), the government, the elites in Washington (the swamp) and Paris who live in their hotels particuliers, send their kids to private schools, the migrants sucking the blood out of the Americans (and French) through taxes and entitlements. They all got fed up with the corruption and being ignored. Therefore, wisely, to quote your paragraph, the U.S. president goes over the heads of institutions to restore power, jobs, money back to the people, and in France the yellow vests “forget” there is a parliament and the feminists condemn everything without involving the justice system. They took the matter into their hands. Many of us are not “puzzled” at all and some courageous souls took to the streets. It started with the right idea: too many taxes. We know that if Europe and the U.S are for open borders and greet millions of migrants with open arms, it is mostly for the votes (who will be sure to vote for the left, the hand that feeds them; socialist ideology) and globalism (Make no mistake, the powers-that-be will be controlling us like puppets and extremely rich à la George Soros). They want a government who will tell people how to think, how to live, what to learn at school, who control their way of life as they knew it and reduce people into apathy: the government knows best what is best for you. All through, the complicit media, more taxes and lack of opportunities. The “revolution” is simply because the masses, the ones who are struggling to pay the taxes to support everybody else have been ignored for too long… Then you have the losers, “casseurs,” clueless but enlightened movie stars who are cashing in millions of dollars, brainwashed students, ecologists (who have no qualms setting fires to cars and tires–adding to the pollution), the bureaucrats who are enjoying plenty of benefits including retirement, and other ideologists who are grabbing the opportunity to join the ranks, destroy, deface, steal, and kill but that’s another story… In the meantime, you have the media on the left, the bleeding heart liberals, the limousine left (caviar de la gauche) cozily installed in their comfortable apartments, gated houses, traveling in private planes (more pollution) or first class, who feel guilty while sipping a glass of Dom Perignon, who proclaim they are for redistribution of wealth (but preferably not theirs: other people money works better). That rhetoric gets them to many beautiful parties, well-dressed charitable events, rubbing shoulders with other elitists while they exchanged names of “cheap” housekeepers, handymen and gardeners who will be paid under the table, all cash, and not pay taxes but do have enough to send some money back home for the rest of the extended family to travel to the U.S. (for instance) for family reunification. The Mercedes and BMW of the upper class won’t suffer much from parting with some extra tax on gas. They all are deeply moral people, the rest of us are sinful or stupid or poor (les sans dents of François Hollande) and love to lecture the rest of us who have the nerve to have a different opinion. And we are back to the average American and French taxpayers who in the meantime are squeezed out of their money. Make the French work longer hours and encourage small businesses, hiring, working part-time, yes, horror, even during the weekend, and less paid vacation, promote less government, do away with all this welfare for the migrants and last but not least stop all these benefits each time somebody has a kid, there are already too many people on this planet who are responsible for the pollution: they need clean water, cars or other form of transportation, refrigerators, computers, phones, all kind of things that have to be discarded (where?), they use plastic bags, more human waste, they smoke and so on… Factories need to run, which create more pollution.

  • Cela semblerait indiquer que nous entrons dans une nouvelle ère de désordre–et que ce n’est pas encore la “fin de l’Histoire”. Les réseaux sociaux sont-ils une espèce de “miroir aux alouettes” ? sorte d’attrape-nigauds ? Mais la mobilisation peut être de courte durée. Les révolutions se faisaient dans les rues de Paris avec peu d’hommes. Aujourd’hui cela semble impossible, non ?

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