In terms of media coverage, the case of the Yellow Vests movement is extremely interesting. The movement started on the Internet, initially because people were fed up with the increase of fuel taxes. Then it grew at a larger scale, and people took it to the streets, in the cities. It is the most impressive example of how powerful the Internet can be when it comes to gathering forces. Meanwhile, the Internet appears as a formidable competitor and an alternative to traditional media. Social networks have become social media : they gather ambitions and spread ideas as well as anger at a wide scale. The Internet does not simply merge into the public space, it becomes the public space.
What’s new is that traditional media are no longer essential to introduce a new topic in the public space. Their function is changing. It could be about presenting various analysis and debates, but it is more about endlessly using tricks to maintain their privileged position of strength. If they no longer have a monopoly on the public space, they are no longer listened to, their audience drops, as well as their earnings. As a result, they have to create scandals, keep the fire burning, make themselves essential, even if it means leaving behind their initial purpose. Mainstream media want to be like a referee : they decide what should become of the movement in the light of their own interests, which are always of an economical nature. Since traditional media no longer get to decide what is part of the news, they impose their own point of view, which is necessarily the work of a minority of editorial writers. However, they are no longer the only source of information, even though they still have a form of authority, which has made, so to speak, the existence of the Yellow Vests movement an official piece of news.
At the core of the great game played by the media, the Yellow Vests reveal what is at stake in the fight for audience. Let’s analyse this process.
How the media shape the image of the movement in order to divide the public opinion
The way the media has analysed the Yellow Vests movement has evolved through time, and it can be divided in three steps : first, the majority of mainstream media minimised enthusiasm on part of the people. Then, when facing the extent of the movement, they tried to discredit it. This can be explained by editorial motives, and by the political links of the media with the current political majority. Moreover, most of the editorial writers, who decide which topics will be published, are neo-liberal people, who are thus very critical of the movement. As a result, some of them did not hesitate to use a formidable weapon : insinuation. Nothing is said, everything is suggested, so that viewers end up thinking of what they’re told as a sort of norm, the general truth. Sometimes, they use it to forge their own opinion. For example, at the end of November, BFM TV ran : “Why so much support ?” as a headline, because 84 % of French people were in favour of the movement, according to opinion polls. After seeing that the Yellow Vests movement continued growing, even though they had first tried to deny it, BFM TV acknowledged this support from the people, while subtly insisting upon the incomprehensible nature of so much enthusiasm. This aimed at discrediting the movement. The question asked by BFM TV suggested, in a subliminal manner, that the movement is not sustainable, not justified, as if there was a hierarchy between causes to fight for. As a result, BFM TV underlines the lack of true motive for a popular uprise, and excludes the Yellow Vests’ demands. This strategy is also visible through the way information is displayed. However, the Yellow Vests stand out precisely because the movement they launched is apolitical and is meant to convey concerns about daily topics of preoccupation. It is about the resurgence of social matters in the public space, which are constantly eclipsed by the rest of the “news”. The movement was born out of generalized anger, without any precise reason, which the media cannot understand anymore. They have buried national demands by deciding what would become of the movement through the prism of their editorial policy. The media have a performative power over reality as we perceive and interpret it.
In a way, the last movement of this nature was “La Manif pour tous” (“Manifestation for all”), which was also displayed in a negative manner by the media. That means the media envisions the news through a moralistic prism, designed by a few editorial writers, who have become a minority group but remain dominant. It is not about deciding whether “La Manif pour tous” is justified or not, it is about how the media portrays this kind of movements. What is paradoxical is the media coverage of those events. The rest of the time, causes that are ultra-minority fill up the media with social matters, while questions that really interest the whole of society are in fact those that the Yellow Vests shed light on. [For example, vegan people, non-binary people, any other type of “social assertion” become matters of general good, simply because they were introduced in the public space, not because they are fundamental collective aspirations. These ultra-minority social themes throw shade over real social questions which matter for all French people.] I am referring to the political theory of Julien Freund, who underlines the importance of mass media when they introduce an affair in the public space, while giving it a political dimension. Freund places political power in the public space, and this is what is at stake when it comes to mass media. Moreover, it is essential to notice the end of the alignment between the majority opinion, the public opinion and the dominant opinion. This is about the rupture with the media system. The Yellow Vests symbolize the end of an era, the one in which information corresponds to people’s opinions and concerns. On many subjects, there is a manifest ideological rupture, which was revealed by the Yellow Vests.
How the media creates confrontation by inventing opponents
There is no plotting at stake, it wouldn’t make any sense, but it is important to decipher the processes at work and the systems which perpetuate themselves. The media always need to master the public debate and allow controversies to grow. It is a matter of survival, as they have to monopolize broadcasting time and manipulate consumers (this is the appropriate word), in order to galvanize the audience. Hence, the media create division step by step by staging it on screen. They make members of the Yellow Vests movement argue, and show their differences by separating them in two groups : the moderate ones and the pro-revolution ones. Their editorial policy is crystal clear : the media prefers to seek for disagreements and topics that breed division, rather than to decipher the reasons of this collective anger. Indeed, their insatiable will to find spokesmen, for a movement that has repeatedly stated not having nor wanting one, shows their lack of means to orchestrate debates as they would like to.
What is more, they invent new opponents, and manipulate opinion polls, which mean what the media want them to mean. First, 85 % of French people support the movement. But on the next day on Macron’s announcements, an opinion poll ordered by the Journal du Dimanche stated that if the presidential elections took place on the day in question, Macron would have one again, with 1 % more votes. All of this is contradictory. The media present information to perpetuate the controversies of which they talk about all day, like a fire that they have to keep burning.
The last example to date, the “Marche Républicaine des Libertés” (“Republican walk for Liberties”), reveals this manipulation, or how the media create opponents in order to stage confrontations. It was easy to guess that this manifestation was a gathering to support Emmanuel Macron and his politics. The event, which was created on Facebook, has been greatly emphasized by the media, which led thousands of people to click on the “interested” button, all within hours. This obvious example of manipulation of the population show how the media use every possible trick to organize and stage events according to their own editorial scenario, the one that guarantees them endless controversies and arguments to occupy the broadcasting time. The most tragic of it all is that each “side” believes believes the media have bread the opposite side. Macron believes they are responsible for the existence of the Yellow Vests, the Yellow Vests believe they support the President, and so on. As a result, there is obviously no plot involving the media, but some sort of old method designed to create conflict, tension, fear, suspicion, anxiety and absurd fits of anger, so that they have enough material for the “news” (which they have thus created themselves). The audience always has to find themselves addicted to a spectacular, conflictual and sensational content. In the end, the media have ceased to inform people and to raise awareness, they create the news to generate earnings by leaving investigation behind in favour of buzz.
What the media choose to bring to the forefront
I always talk about the notion of bias, because just like film-making, this is about choices and omissions. Hence, it quickly becomes clear that the media insist upon the material violence bred by the movement, by giving the word “violence” a material connotation and a social origin. When they are not busy denouncing violence on part of the Yellow Vests, they are repeating commonplaces like : “People responsible for aggro and the Yellow Vests are not the same”. Then the two ideas merge in the mind of viewers. It is the theory of suggestion. By associating violence to material damage, the media knowingly leave behind social violence, which the movement tries to bring attention to. While commentators are complaining about the damage that was done to the Champs Elysées, and the fact that poor foreign tourists won’t be able to enjoy their stay in France, flood victims in Aude are still waiting to be taken care of. This is about choices.
On the 17th of December, the Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, explained that at the end of the day, “In the media, the Yellow Vests have only existed through violence”, and I agree with him. Except that violence was staged, and was the result of an editorial choice. It is always important to remember that the media lives off buzz and that we live in a “Société du spectacle” (“The society of the spectacle”), which is a theory by Guy Debord. The violence which the Minister of the Interior wants the Yellow Vests to end is only an essential aspect of the movement because it was established as such by the media. Hence, without violence, the movement exists, but it does not have the existence and the importance that the media have given it, as they have constantly been trying to fan the flames of violence and amplify violent events. The same thing applies to terrorism : a terrorist attack does not have the same impact without the media, precisely because the effect that panic and terror are supposed to trigger, which is the actual « terrorist » effect, doesn’t truly exist without the media. And if it does exist, it is very much diminished. Indeed, the media play a major role in amplifying its impact and the way it is perceived. It becomes nothing more than an attack. For example, the media are inclined to talk about a terrorist attack when a Muslim man shouts « Allahu akbar » before attacking people with a knife without killing them (i.e. the attack against military men at the Carrousel of the Louvre, on the 3rd of February, 2017). However, the media would only speak about an attack « by a maniac » if the attacker was not Muslim. This shows what point of view is adopted by the media in terms of representation as far as the impact of terrorism goes (by definition, the impact of terror). Better yet, when using reductio ad aburdum, it becomes clear that this is only about an editorial bias, since fast-foods kill more people in France than terrorism does. However, the media evokes this topic very rarely (one death out of five is linked to a unhealthy diet, and fast-foods play a great part in it).This is an outstanding opportunity for the government to discredit what the movement stands for by reducing it, explicitly or not, to its violence, whether the Yellow Vests trigger it voluntary or not. By bringing violence onto the table, the media delivers arguments to political personalities on a silver plate. Again, it all comes down to an editorial choice. Violence itself is a choice, that is to say a question of point of view. When the media choose to speak about material damage, they do it knowingly (which gives visibility to the movement, but in a paradoxical and negative way). Their editorial policy could be very different. For example, they could decide to show the social commitments of the Yellow Vests, their interest for democratic life, or the growing links of solidarity within the movement. Instead, the media thrives on violence, which they show on scree, because the audience likes it, because images are dominant in a world that has grown accustomed to spectacular events. The media are the symptom of our own perversion.
How the media allow political exploitation from of political parties
The media have played a great role in allowing political figures and traditional parties to be a part of a movement which they had purposely been left behind from the beginning. This is paradoxical because the movement wants to be apolitical and open to all citizens. However, the media have brought back people which citizens wanted out of their fight and of the demonstration of their anger. These political parties all speak the same, but agree on nothing. This is a spontaneous and apolitical movement that endures the fight for influence of political parties, which had precisely been strictly rejected in the name of an emancipated social phenomenon. The media force political parties back on the table, even though they no longer represent anything. This crisis of political representation does explain why people have massively taken it to the streets. The Yellow Vests show the depth current political crisis.
Thus, it is the media who moderate the public debate and shape it according to the themes they want to bring to the foreground, which are often different form the topics valued by protestors. The media are not serving the people, they are not a reflection of what is happening, but of what should be believed. They do not try to be neutral when it comes to the Yellow Vests, as the questions asked are always the same. The repetition of these questions imposes the topics and forms of reality which people see. The media and political parties have to make the movement their own in order to control it, even though it was born out of the political system. According to them, the movement is dangerous and unpredictable without a hierarchy or a structure. However, if it becomes a party, an organization or a structured movement, then the government will benefit from spokesmen and will be able to control people at the head of the movement. For the media, it could be an opportunity to manipulate information even more, by staging confrontations and allowing a simple scenario to unroll without any unforeseeable element.
The Yellow Vests are an editorial boon
To conclude, what is said and shown by the media IS reality because they still decide what should be believed while staging controversies, conflicts and scandals. The Yellow Vests are the epitome of the breaking point between the majority opinion, the public opinion and the dominant opinion, and between the media and the people. The latter is more and more hostile in the face of the media system, which as of now only represents itself and a minority of editorial writers. The fact that the Yellow Vest protest on December 29th started in front of the headquarters of BFM TV shows this growing hostility from the people towards mass media. However, it is certainly also the symptom of a deeper crisis, which goes beyond political representation. There is a rupture between the media and the citizens regarding topics of concern and means to analyse information, which puts an end to a pillar of our democracy. However, freedom of the press only makes sense when it informs the people and serves as a Fourth estate. The Yellow Vests show that the media and are lost in the complexity of their own ambiguity, and do not make their goal easy to identify. We are facing a disowned media system, that one has to go against in order to decipher it. Welcome to Desintox.
Translated by Mathilde OLLIER