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How a change of algorithm at Facebook made the 'Yellow Vests' protests possible

Yellow Vests protesters clash with riot police forces during a demonstration against rising oil prices and living costs in Bordeaux, southwestern France, on December 1, 2018
Commitment to "radical transparency" might be welcomed by internet activists, but many report online threats.

Facebook is coming into sharp focus for its role in the "Yellow Vests" protests that have rocked France in the past three weeks.

The French government and observers were taken by surprise by the sheer force of numbers that the hardly planned and decentralized protests have taken over the last few weeks, forcing it to backtrack on a set of flagship reforms.

Now, there is a growing understanding that a change of policy at Facebook headquarters might have facilitated the rise of the protest movement.

Facebook has been widely associated with several popular protest movements in recent years, from the Arab Spring in Egypt to anti-muslim riots in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Last year, Facebook made changes to its algorithm at that had the effect of prioritizing content that was locally relevant, moving away from promoting pages and other ways that professional bodies had to communicate with users.

The company has also become increasingly relevant to older audiences, as they become more literate in the medium, and younger people move to other platforms like instagram.

According to an in-depth investigation of the "Yellow Vests" social network presence in Buzzfeed, this new policy, allied with a long-standing French tradition of politicized local activism, created the perfect catalyst for regional pockets of social anger to go viral.

"The new algo pushed the Yellow Vests into a ‘filter bubble’ in which they hardly see content anymore that isn’t yellow", said Vincent Glad, a social media journalist at French daily Liberation.

Bertrand GUAY (AFP)

- Societal change in action -

The influence of Facebook, and the greater, internet-based connectivity it represents might also be visible in other aspects of the protest movement.

The "Yellow Vests" have no leaders to speak of, which has made it difficult for government to negotiate, or reach any kind of compromises.

Those that have come forward and have accepted to sit down with Macron's administration have asked for uniquely radical standards of transparency.

Last week, Eric Drouet, a 33-year old truck driver who has become one of the mainstays of the movement, secretly broadcasted a meeting with environment minister Francois de Rugy on Facebook Live.

Other "Yellow Vests" representatives have walked out of meetings with ministers, when told these would be held behind closed doors.

What could be perceived as a commitment to honesty also comes amid fears that there is an uglier side to the large pool of discussion that the online conversation creates.

"Yellow Vests" activists have reported multiple instances of initimidations, including death threats, after taking positions (or being rumored of doing so) that were unpalatable to others.

Four people have been killed, and many injured in the last few weeks. The country is bracing itself for further protests on Saturday this week.


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