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can we still govern at the time of social networks?

At the time of social networks, “the one who cries the strongest will have the upper hand, whatever his claims,” ​​regrets the political scientist Olivier Costa.

The political scientist Olivier Costa, author of this article, is a research director at the CNRS, and teaches at Sciences Po Bordeaux. The original version of this article has been published on The Conversation website, of which franceinfo is a partner. He expresses himself here freely.


State authorities and elected officials (and not only those of the majority, let us not deceive ourselves) are facing a mistrust of an unprecedented scale, to which it is difficult to find an answer, so much the demands are to both heterogeneous and individualistic (one per sub-category of the population), unrealistic and contradictory (more public services, but less taxes, more growth, but less competition, more security, but fewer rules), and disconnected from issues as fundamental as global warming or the indebtedness of the country.

How to explain that we got there so fast? The first observation is that a deeper evil, the one that led to the Brexit, the election of Viktor Orban, Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini and Jair Bolsonaro, and guarantees the irremovability of Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan .

The causes of this syndrome are known: decline of ideologies, weakening of intermediary bodies, widespread pessimism, fear of decline (social, economic, industrial, environmental, cultural, religious …), fear of big changes (globalization, migration, international competition, terrorism, metropolisation …) and opportunism of the merchants of fear and dreams, which fuel the anguish and hatred, the business of their prosperous populist and media SMEs.

Added to this is the omnipotence of social networks, which jostle the traditional logic of mobilizations, communication, information and the functioning of the public space.

First, they allow, without the least financial means, human or logistical, to organize on a large scale the action of citizens who do not know each other. Without social networks, it would have been impossible for quidams to coordinate so quickly a protest of this magnitude. The movement of “yellow vests”, party of very limited mobilizations and devoid of any resource, could acquire in the space of a month a considerable extent, suggesting to some that it is now vocation to replace the parties, unions, and even national representation.

This is the meaning of a speech of protest and revolt. Everyone was able to notice it: it is almost impossible to start a serene and well-argued dialogue. Facebook or Twitter is emotion against emotion, anger against anger, indignation against indignation, outrage against outrage. It follows, or a dialogue of the deaf between people with little ability to listen, constantly goaded by trolls; the constitution of spheres that are empowering, populated by people who share the same convictions, here citizens who think that the government does a policy for the sole benefit of bankers, there are others who believe that the “yellow vests” are all bewildered.

This primacy of emotion has won the public and media sphere. What we hear are not arguments or ideas, but emotions (“I'm angry”, “I'm fed up”) and perceptions (“I think I earn less”, “we do not care about us”). The facts are not important anymore. This is the reign of belief on knowledge: religious belief or social belief, it is the same.

That 2 and 2 do not matter if some people think it's 5 or 7. Emphasize that arithmetic makes it clear that it will be perceived as contempt or condescension …Olivier Costa, research director at CNRS

The legitimacy of a movement seeming to be measured by the degree of emotion of its protagonists, they are incited to excess and overbidding arguments, to legitimize violence: “Judge, I launched a slab on the CRS, but, understand, I was very, very angry. “

What also strikes, besides the CRS and the breakers, it is a deviation of the democratic logic. It should, in principle, apply only to political choices: the people decide to do this or that. But, more and more, it also applies to many other fields: to art (“Master Gims is the best singer because the most listened to”) or even to science (“Americans think that global warming is not man-made or that the Earth is 5,000 years old, and we must respect that”).

That a majority of citizens come to believe that we can refrain from repaying the debt of France and that it will have no consequences, and it becomes a truth. That the idea of ​​doubling the smic is widely supported, and it becomes a realistic option. The feasibility of reforms is no longer a relevant parameter.

In the name of a poorly understood democracy and the imperatives of ratings, on any subject whatsoever, the media also consult the man of the street or the atrial columnist, rather than the scientist. On global warming, the dangerousness of glyphosate or economic growth, the opinion of the citizen is well worth the Nobel Prize. To pretend otherwise is to scorn the people.

In the name of a caricatured democracy, it is believed that the opinion of every citizen, in all things, has the same value. A vociferous crowd is also considered to be the sovereign people. That the “yellow vests” voted more than 60% for the National Rally and France Insoumise, according to a survey, and therefore represent only a minority of the electorate, does not matter.

Added to this is the ever-growing dissemination of fake news through social networks: we have rarely seen so many peremptory claims and wacky information fueling a social movement. It is almost impossible to stem this flow, because of the emotional nature of the mobilization, the hermeticism of the spheres of social networks that only disseminate information consistent with the thinking that dominates, and the time required to denounce a fake news.

If it takes ten seconds to assert (as we have heard a lot) that France no longer has a Constitution or is going to be “sold” to the UN, it takes ten minutes to explain where these grotesque ideas and why they are wrong.Olivier Costa, research director at CNRS

In addition, the belief taking precedence over the truth, and the end justifying the means, even though it would show that, no, the police did not kill 15 people during such a demonstration, the mobilized will not demoralize, On behalf of “It could be true, so we can say it” or “the experts and the journalists are at the orders of the power and the banks”.

This elastic relation to the truth, which is a constant of the speech of the populists, is now spreading rapidly, even among citizens who are a priori accessible to reason.

Social networks are also an ideal playground for organizations or pharmacies seeking to manipulate public opinion. We know today the role they played in the Brexit campaign or the election of Donald Trump. Russia's indirect support to candidates during the 2017 presidential campaign in France is well known.

We will probably know more in a few weeks about the role of anti-republican networks of far left or right, royalists, anarchists or ultra-Catholics, in the mobilization of “yellow vests” (which does not imply, of course , that they subscribe to their ideas).

It would hardly be surprising to learn that countries that have a negative view of the existence of a stable and progressive country like France – and of a peaceful whole like the Union – have mobilized themselves on the subject as well. , to promote the dissemination of the claims of “yellow vests” and support their mobilization.

Social networks, like some media in tow, also favor the effects of contamination and overbidding: the “yellow vests” protest against the rise of diesel and get a moratorium? Never mind, let's launch (high school students, students, farmers, paramedics …) in the battle to get ourselves also taken into account our claims, or at least avoid being the collateral victims of the concessions obtained by the others – because everyone knows that someone has to pay.

“Yellow vests” mobilized in Toulouse on December 1, 2018. (PASCAL PAVANI / AFP)

Opposition parties and unions are disconcerted by a movement that escapes them? Failing to take control, mobilize our troops to ride the wave of discontent and take advantage of the weakness of a government at bay.

The logic of argumentation that dominates social networks, and the media of information continues through these plateaus where chroniclers come to measure their respective capacity for outrage and demagogy, leads to a relativism of knowledge and competence that saw the beginning in the United States as early as the 1990s. The experts know nothing. (Good) journalists are liars. The chosen ones of thieves. Ministers of incompetent …

We recognize, for a while again, the competence of the electrician, the pilot of plane or the surgeon (nobody wishing that a citizen lambda takes care of his electrical installation, take orders of the Airbus where he is installed or operated on the knee), but the high official is a fool, the professor a wacky, the parliamentarian an imposter.

We also despise associative, partisan, and union involvement, and we deny the competence and legitimacy of those who give of their time, all year long, to advance ideas and causes, and know how to lead mobilization and negotiation.

Today, the one who shouts the strongest will have the upper hand, whatever his demands.Olivier Costa, research director at CNRS

The idea is that, since all officials and elected officials are deemed to have failed to solve the problems (real or fantasized) of France, Jacline Mouraud or any carrier of “yellow vest” can not do worse. They are the people.

Faced with all this, what does reason and argument weigh? Nothing, or so little.

The government has begun to make concessions to “yellow vests”, but farmers and truckers, who will in turn suffer the consequences of these decisions, are mobilized in turn. High school students and students take the opportunity to launch their five-year revolution, with a certain fascination for the extreme methods of some “yellow vests”.

How to manage a society in which everyone wants more without worrying about the fact that any public expenditure must be financed and that any decision has negative consequences? A society in which the sense of general interest has given way to every man for himself? A society where one no longer cares about coherence of speeches and demands? A society where citizens rely on the first seller of snake oil come?

The optimist will think that the revolutionary apprentices will sooner or later be confronted with the reality, the very concrete difficulties of the art of governing and making arbitrations. But it is to forget that, in a system where emotions, impressions and half-truths prevail, it is easy to blame others for failures.Olivier Costa, research director at CNRS

Let's look at populists everywhere: their impotence is always blamed on the technocrats who prevent them from implementing their program, the journalists who distort reality, or specific groups of people who harm the interests of the people ( Mexicans, Poles, refugees or bankers, it does not matter).

It should be kept in mind that a growing number of citizens, in France as elsewhere, believe that there are political systems that are preferable to democracy (we never say which ones) and are fascinated by authoritarian or populist leaders. Officials who persist in stirring up the conflict are wrong to believe that democracy is a definitive achievement and that they will be able to pick up the electoral roll at the end of the crisis. The first polls show that they do not benefit. They are only playing the game of anti-republican groups who understood early on what they could do with this social movement.

The Conversation

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