The tragic death of 17-year-old Nahel after being shot by the police and the ensuing wave of riots in France has captured the world’s attention.
On Friday, President Macron blamed social media and video games for the spread of the riots, the latest bombardment in an aggressive anti-rioter communications campaign that has seen French government ministers refuse to mitigate their condemnation of the violence and even the family of the young victim call for an end to the unrest.
Of course, this context is crucial, with the president and his cronies working flat out to embroil the protestors in an ‘enemies of the state’s narrative. However, Macron’s comments have reignited debate about social media’s role in activism and its spillover into civil unrest.
This isn’t new. From the Arab Spring to the Hong Kong protests to the USA Capitol Riots, social media has, for over a decade now, been a significant catalyst and fuel for major civil unrest. It’s a way of spreading information quickly, organising and mobilising people, and capturing the imaginations of potential new members of a movement. In fact, the use of social media has developed to such an extent that even significant portions of the ‘information war’ element of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are played out on Telegram.
Throughout this evolution, social media has increasingly and pervasively been used as a means to spread disinformation and incite violence, and in France, it’s no different. Macron’s weaponising of the medium in his quest to harden the public against the rioters has focused on the latter. Still, the former is similarly prominent, with scenes from other incidents in other countries, even from works of fiction, being used to distort an already chaotic picture of a fractious nation.
Social media’s role in civil unrest was initially seen by many as a potential force for good – a way of underdogs levelling the playing field against oppressors and censors- but lately, its role is seen as that of a petrol canister tossed by bad actors in the direction of any spark of unrest. Macron’s criticism will only strengthen that view.