Opinion

Here’s what Extinction Rebellion could learn from the Gilets Jaunes’ media strategy

By Oliver Haynes

Published Nov 4, 2019 at 01:28 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes


Climate change

Nov 4, 2019

Less than a month ago, Extinction Rebellion faced one of its first major challenges when two activists were filmed disrupting the smooth running of the tube in the relatively deprived area of Canning Town. This incident represented a significant PR loss for Extinction Rebellion. After the tube protest, an email was sent from the group that organised it to members of Extinction Rebellion, proving that many of its members had opposed the action, with 72 per cent opposed to actions that disrupted the tube trains, and a further 14 per cent saying they were opposed to actions that meant people would get trapped underground. But even after this was revealed, headlines continued to implicate the entire Extinction Rebellion movement in the tube disruption.

Since then, Extinction Rebellion has faced an uphill struggle against media framing. A mass movement such as this one will always contain a few people who might go too far, and will be liable to face criticism for the actions of a minority of members. This can be dangerous when most major media outlets in the UK are already indifferent to political movements at best, and hostile at worst. That’s why it is urgent for Extinction Rebellion to step up its media game, expand its tactics, and who best to learn from than its cousin across the channel, the Gilets Jaunes? It’s about time Extinction Rebellion built its own media ecology theory.

Although the rebellious movement has made tentative steps in this direction by creating its own news page and podcast, if things were to go wrong once more it probably wouldn’t be able to penetrate the constant media noise with only a news page on its own website. For example, a Twitter search for Extinction Rebellion yields very little in terms of results linking to the aforementioned page.

The Gilet Jaunes movement has also faced similar issues. Much of the French mass media ignored important problems, such as police violence against members of the movement until it became impossible not to cover it. What the Gilets Jaunes movement did that Extinction Rebellion has not done yet was to construct a media ecology capable of raising these issues and giving its side of the story, allowing it to push against media hostility. This is not to say that the French movement was perfect. Far from it, it had illiberal and sometimes racist and violent currents running through parts of it; yet the caricatured image of the movement put forward by politicians and certain media organisations weren’t accurate either.

Much of the repression the Gilets Jaunes movement faced was rationalised by the idea that the movement was full of ‘casseurs’—thugs and vandals that turn the city upside down—but the victims of police violence were able to turn the tide on this narrative through their savvy use of the internet. The online publication GJ Magazine, created by the Gilets Jaunes, and available on a browser or through the App Store, was not too dissimilar from Extinction Rebellion’s website, only it was marketed in a way that more people could access.

The Gilets Jaunes’ real triumph, however, lies in the many videos it shared on social media platforms. The videos often provided a better way of gaining engagement and more eyeballs on reporting about the movement’s developments, and offered parodies of the French government’s famous lines concerning the Gilets Jaunes. These gained hundreds of thousands of views, even with the general trend of declining movement participation. Videos from the ‘ban the grenade and flashball’ Facebook page and YouTube channel also allowed activists to tell their own story and share how they suffered at the hands of the police, showing that they weren’t in fact ‘casseurs’. These viral clips also helped promote marches in solidarity with police violence victims, and raise police violence as a salient issue.

Images and videos of violence are perfect fuel for the social media machine, but that doesn’t mean Extinction Rebellion shouldn’t create its own institutions for pushing counternarratives when events like the tube disruption happen. While it appears that the French police may be more violent than ours, there could come a time when Extinction Rebellion needs that same viral infrastructure to highlight any injustice it faces at the hands of the authorities.

While in its prime, the Gilets Jaunes movement was good at using its distributed network of local Facebook groups and bigger nationwide groups and pages to cause social media cascades that rippled across the platform. Extinction Rebellion has a similar structure of central pages and smaller local ones, so maybe it should try and coordinate a social media strategy, even if it means creating a virality that the Gilets Jaunes achieved organically.

The Gilet Jaunes movement may be a shadow of its former self, but it still punches above its weight in social media terms. Its media architecture was never perfect, but it built an online magazine, digital TV channels such as Vecu and Gilets Jaunes TV, and used hundreds of pages to promote content and provide counter-narratives. If Extinction Rebellion wants to tackle unfriendly or uninterested press, maybe it should start by creating its own media ecology strategy to force people to listen.

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