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Social media: a new paradigm for public opinion

Yellow Vests, #MeToo: how social media catalyse protests

Germain Gauthier, Assistant Professor at Bocconi
On June 1st, 2022 |
4 min reading time
Germain Gauthier
Germain Gauthier
Assistant Professor at Bocconi
Key takeaways
  • With social networks, it is easier than before to pick up on protest signals as well as for groups to organise themselves, facilitating the demonstration.
  • The Yellow Vests (“Gilets Jaunes”, in French) are a perfect example of online and offline mobilisation with nearly 4 million members in Facebook groups and over 300,000 people present on the first day of mobilisation in the streets.
  • As a result of the MeToo movement, there has been a significant rise in sex crime complaints in the US – around +20% between 2017 and 2018 for New York City, for example.
  • Even if MeToo did not trigger street protests, the stock market crashes and bankruptcy of Harvey Weinstein's company are examples of its effect on the ‘real world’.

With the advent of the dig­i­tal age, protest move­ments are now being expressed and organ­ised dif­fer­ent­ly. In the past, they were, for exam­ple, led by trade unions or polit­i­cal par­ties that strug­gled to estab­lish demon­stra­tions with a high lev­el of mobil­i­sa­tion, due to a lack of coor­di­na­tion. And if they did man­age to mobilise peo­ple, it had to be through inter­me­di­aries due to these coor­di­na­tion problems.

Today, with social net­works, things are dif­fer­ent: it is much sim­pler to pick up on protest sig­nals and to organ­ise, mak­ing it eas­i­er to build move­ments around these aggre­gates of anger. Ger­main Gau­thi­er, a doc­tor­al stu­dent in eco­nom­ics, works on the impact of social net­works on the for­ma­tion of this type of move­ment. He analy­ses two recent protest move­ments: the “Me Too” move­ment and the “Yel­low Vests” protests in France.

The Yellow Vests and Facebook

The Yel­low Vests – a spo­radic move­ment born out of the protest around the rise in fuel prices in France which began in 2018 – is one of the typ­i­cal exam­ples of the new protests and the dig­i­tal organ­i­sa­tion that has sprung up around them. No leader, no polit­i­cal par­ties, just a pop­u­la­tion at the end of its teth­er in a high­ly com­plex eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion, mobil­is­ing en masse via social net­works12. This move­ment gave rise to demands that went beyond the price of petrol and extend­ed to the re-estab­lish­ment of the wealth tax, while remain­ing some­what con­fused due to the lack of struc­ture of the movement.

Indeed, the cre­ation of numer­ous groups on Face­book, still active today, is one of the organ­i­sa­tion­al ele­ments of the move­ment. To bet­ter under­stand it, Ger­main Gau­thi­er and his co-authors mapped the online and offline mobil­i­sa­tions of the Yel­low Vests. For online mobil­i­sa­tion, they list­ed more than 3,000 geolo­cat­ed groups on Face­book with near­ly 4 mil­lion mem­bers in total; as well as mil­lions of mes­sages post­ed on hun­dreds of pages relat­ed to the Yel­low Vests. For offline mobil­i­sa­tion, the researchers have a map of inten­tions to demon­strate on the evening of the first ral­ly, on 17th Novem­ber 2018, which brings togeth­er near­ly 300,000 protesters.

The cor­re­la­tion between atten­dance in Face­book groups and the gen­er­al mobil­i­sa­tion of the Yel­low Vests move­ment is very real. More­over, unlike move­ments that could not ben­e­fit from the impe­tus of social net­works, offline mobil­i­sa­tion per­sists even after the mas­sive mobil­i­sa­tion in the streets (see graph below).

Evo­lu­tion of the Yel­low Vests’ online and offline mobil­i­sa­tions3.

This graph shows the rela­tion­ship between offline and online mobil­i­sa­tion, but also the move­men­t’s abil­i­ty to endure over time. It can be seen that the curve relat­ing to com­ments on Face­book pages only decreas­es slight­ly, unlike the mobilisation.

Ger­main Gau­thi­er explains, “the spa­tial cor­re­la­tion between Face­book groups and organ­ised phys­i­cal block­ades is large­ly pos­i­tive and explains the offline mobil­i­sa­tion more than the admin­is­tra­tive socio-demo­graph­ic data of the regions. On the eve of 17th Novem­ber, there were near­ly 918 Face­book groups with more than 100 mem­bers – that’s already more than a mil­lion poten­tial pro­test­ers. If this first online mobil­i­sa­tion was impres­sive, the sec­ond was even more so. In the after­math of 17th Novem­ber, a new wave of Face­book groups was cre­at­ed, feed­ing the move­ment and keep­ing the protest alive on social net­works4.”

This study there­fore shows that the Yel­low Vests move­ment has tend­ed to mul­ti­ply in an inno­v­a­tive dig­i­tal era, defy­ing codes and mobil­is­ing a large num­ber of peo­ple. The ques­tion which remains unan­swered is that of pre­dic­tion. Will it be pos­si­ble, in the near future, to pre­dict protest move­ments by sim­ply analysing “big data”?

Ger­main Gau­thi­er does not think so, but he warns, “our abil­i­ty to pre­dict the appear­ance of social move­ments is still poor. How­ev­er, many dic­ta­to­r­i­al regimes around the world have under­stood the impor­tance of social net­works (and more gen­er­al­ly of dig­i­tal traces) for mon­i­tor­ing pop­u­la­tions. From that point of view, the risk is very real.

Me Too, a new generation of protest

Ger­main Gau­thi­er also stud­ied a dif­fer­ent type of protest move­ment in the MeToo phe­nom­e­non, which encour­ages women to speak out and express them­selves, from social net­works, on sex­u­al vio­lence. This move­ment gained momen­tum at the time of the Wein­stein affair in 2017.

Whilst Me Too does not cre­ate large demon­stra­tions in the streets, it offers an unprece­dent­ed lev­el of mobil­i­sa­tion on social net­works while impact­ing real life through free speech and dis­rupt­ing social codes. Gau­thi­er com­pares the MeToo move­ment to May 68 (in France), explain­ing that, “this move­ment is already shak­ing up soci­etal codes oppress­ing women and aims to pro­found­ly change soci­etal norms in the long term.” The pres­sure of the move­ment is then applied to many insti­tu­tions. As such, the mobil­i­sa­tion on social net­works means that, even with­out large protests in the real world like the Yel­low Vest, the glob­al move­ment that is MeToo is forc­ing politi­cians to look at social net­works and become aware of their impact.

Gau­thi­er pro­vides an accu­rate mea­sure of this impact by using a num­ber of vari­ables to high­light the poten­tial cor­re­la­tion between the MeToo move­ment on social net­works and sex crime com­plaints. By com­par­ing sex crime com­plaints before and after the appear­ance of the “#Metoo” hash­tag, which went viral on Twit­ter in Octo­ber 2017, he observes a sig­nif­i­cant increase in sex crime com­plaints in the Unit­ed States (around +20% between 2017 and 2018 for New York City, for example).


But the MeToo move­ment seems to be the cul­mi­na­tion of an anger that has been res­onat­ing for years on social net­works. Since 2010, the num­ber of ref­er­ences to sex­u­al vio­lence on social net­works has been steadi­ly increas­ing. In his report on the sub­ject, he writes, “empir­i­cal find­ings indi­cate sub­stan­tial pre-trends before the advent of the MeToo move­ment. I esti­mate that the share of vic­tims who even­tu­al­ly report a sex crime to the police dou­bled between 2009 and 2017, from 30% to 60%. In terms of the inci­dence of sex crimes, my esti­mates sug­gest a 50% decrease in New York City and a 20% decrease in Los Ange­les. »

There are sev­er­al notable exam­ples to show the eco­nom­ic impact of the move­ment: the 16% drop in the Wynn Resort Group after accu­sa­tions of sex­u­al harass­ment against the CEO, the 21% drop in the Guess Group, again for the same rea­sons. Not to men­tion the bank­rupt­cy of the stu­dio found­ed by Har­vey Weinstein.

All of these exam­ples show us that even with­out sig­nif­i­cant offline mobil­i­sa­tion, online mobil­i­sa­tion can have many impacts on com­pa­nies and poli­cies. Social net­works are now at the heart of soci­ety and the line between online and offline has nev­er been so blurred.

 “We still can’t pre­dict the next big moves in social net­works. But, thanks to the data we can get from them, we are able to look very close­ly at how move­ments devel­op,” he con­cludes. “Nev­er­the­less, it is dif­fi­cult to know today whether the way move­ments are pro­gress­ing is due to social net­works or not. For exam­ple, if we had access to this kind of data dur­ing the Mar­garet Thatch­er era in the UK, we might see the same pat­terns…

Interview by Fabien Roches
2The typ­i­cal pro­file of the yel­low vest: « The yel­low vests bring togeth­er peo­ple who are extreme­ly dis­sat­is­fied with their lives, regard­less of whether they agree on the means to address this. They are most­ly for­mer vot­ers of Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélen­chon or absten­tion­ists (in that order). They share a more rad­i­cal cri­tique of the state and gov­ern­ment than either of these elec­torates, while hold­ing more mid­dle-of-the-road posi­tions on moral issues such as tol­er­ance of minori­ties. » https://​www​.cepremap​.fr/​2​0​1​9​/​0​2​/​n​o​t​e​-​d​e​-​l​o​b​s​e​r​v​a​t​o​i​r​e​-​d​u​-​b​i​e​n​-​e​t​r​e​-​n​2​0​1​9​-​0​3​-​q​u​i​-​s​o​n​t​-​l​e​s​-​g​i​l​e​t​s​-​j​a​u​n​e​s​-​e​t​-​l​e​u​r​s​-​s​o​u​t​iens/
3Pierre C. Boy­er, Thomas Dele­motte, Ger­main Gau­thi­er, Vin­cent Rol­let et Benoît Schmutz, « Les déter­mi­nants de la mobil­i­sa­tion des “gilets jaunes” », Revue économique,‎ 26 juil­let 2019
4Jean-Yves Dor­ma­gen & Geof­frey Pion, « “Gilets jaunes”, com­bi­en de divi­sions ? », sur Le Monde diplo­ma­tique, 1er févri­er 2021


Germain Gauthier

Germain Gauthier

Assistant Professor at Bocconi

Germain Gauthier is a professor at Bocconi University. He obtained a doctorate in economics from École Polytechnique in 2023. His research lies at the intersection of public economics, political economy and applied econometrics. In particular, he has studied the determinants and consequences of various social movements, such as the #MeToo movement.

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