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After Yellow Vests Come Off, Activists in France Use Facebook to Protest and Plan

PARIS — Last Saturday, Thomas Mirallès donned a yellow vest in his hometown in southern France and headed out to protest President Emmanuel Macron and high taxes. Afterward, he and other demonstrators around the country returned home, just as they had done every weekend for the past month.

But though they were no longer gathered together in town squares and on the streets, Mr. Mirallès and many fellow protesters were far from dispersed. Away from the television cameras and police lines, they kept coordinating their actions online — mostly on Facebook.

While attention has been directed at the dramatic Saturday protests across France, much of the action occurs on the social network the rest of the week. Between Sunday and Friday, people like Mr. Mirallès broadcast Facebook Live sessions, share sensational videos of police aggression, host polls to crowdsource what issues to talk about during coming TV interviews, and plot their next moves.

“Both fuel each other,” said Mr. Mirallès, 27, a real-estate agent in Perpignan who moderates a Facebook group for protesters that has amassed more than 305,000 members. “Without Facebook there wouldn’t be such a movement, but the online activity is fueled by the energy in the streets.”

France has a robust history of political protest, with or without Facebook. But looking inside the platform opens a window into the unruly nature of Yellow Vest conversations, with their disparate demands and competing agendas. Facebook has roughly 35 million monthly active users in France, or about 52 percent of the population, and many feeds are now crammed with images related to the protests.

Mr. Mirallès, who became the administrator last month of La France en Colère, said he tried to delete the most extreme material posted in the Facebook group. But that task was difficult, he said, given how fast-moving the activity is.

“There’s a huge amount of conspiracy theories, which is a shame,” he said. “We’re facing an increasing need of moderators and administrators. It’s a little complicated.”

Mr. Mirallès joined the Yellow Vest movement in October after growing frustrated with high taxes. He said he reached out to La France en Colère to volunteer to help screen the flood of posts pouring in as interest in participating in protests swelled. Within weeks, he was one of the group’s eight moderators, spending several hours a day responding to messages from fellow activists and reading through comments.

“False news has no place on Facebook and we have doubled down on our efforts to prevent the spread of false information on our platform and to educate people on how to identify and signal this type of content,” the company said in a statement.

Twitter declined to comment. Telegram didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The spreading of misinformation has led some prominent Yellow Vest leaders to express concerns about the influence of social media in the protests.

“I’m not sure Facebook should have this role of amplification,” said Ingrid Levavasseur, 32, a nurse in Normandy who has become a spokeswoman for the movement. For many groups, she said, “it has gotten out of their hands.”

Facebook has long been used as a political organizing tool, but it has rarely fueled such a large protest movement inside a western democracy, said Olivier Costa, a political scientist in Bordeaux and head of research at the National Center for Scientific Research. While the size of Yellow Vest protests may shrink after this week’s government concessions, the experience provides a template for future activism, he said.

For the Yellow Vests, it can be dizzying to “build such a movement and force a government to bend,” Mr. Costa said.

Those in the movement said the strength of social media was worth any drawback.

“Call Facebook a tool, a threat, a weapon, it’s hard to know,” said Mr. Mirallès. “But there would be no Yellow Vests today without it.”

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