(Bloomberg) -- Sporting a baseball cap turned backward, he’s blowing cigarette smoke into the camera and eating potato chips as 13,000 people watch on: the Yellow Vests protesters know him as “Fly Rider.”
The day after a wave of violence last weekend left Paris cleaning up burnt cars and broken glass in posh districts, protesters from the grassroots Yellow Vests movement quickly convened to debrief and define future tactics. Their venue: a Facebook group run by 31-year-old Maxime Nicolle. Posting with the alias “Fly Rider,” he’s become an Internet star in just a couple of weeks and risen as a prominent face of the French strikes.
Nicolle is one of several online activists giving French President Emmanuel Macron cold sweats: with more than 120,000 members, his Facebook group aims to help coordinate and organize actions, as well as canalize what protesters want. It’s home to posts about everything from injured protesters to what to wear to avoid tear gas.
Rise to Fame
France is the latest place where platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but also messaging software like Whatsapp and Telegram, are being used by protesters to organize and coordinate. It’s raised questions about the nobodies who become leaders online practically overnight, in a quick rise to fame and influence.
“There’s a handful of people who have managed to monopolize the floor online -- unknowns who have become top influencers,” said Benedicte Martan, head of studies at social media analysis firm Visibrain. “Social media has given rise to poster boys for rebellion, and they’ve beat politicians to the top of the influencer ranking.”
In a live-chat video on Sunday that drew some 13,000 viewers, Nicolle said that “a lot of people are working online, creating Facebook groups to help structure the movement -- otherwise it’s chaos.” Nicolle discussed fake news, the French government’s actions, as well as things like playing the guitar and eating potato chips.
France Is Angry
In a similar initiative, “La France en colere !!!” (“France is Angry !!!”), a group by Eric Drouet and Priscillia Ludovsky, has passed the 200,000-member mark and, like Nicolle, its moderators have been making the rounds of television newscasts as now-appointed spokespeople of the Yellow Vests movement. Drouet earlier this week called for protesters to invade the Elysee presidential palace.
Martan said a lot of the most visible accounts tweeting about the Yellow Vests have a hard-right or far-right political positioning. Nationalist politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan is the top-ranked politician, with about 35,000 retweets over the same period. French President Emmanuel Macron doesn’t appear on Visibrain’s the top-40 influencer list based on Twitter.
Facebook, Twitter content is mostly public so governments can study it and use it to counter the movement if they want to. Messenger apps like Whatsapp and Telegram and trickier because chat groups there are private and influence is hard to measure.
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