Public Violence: Viral Images Give the Alert

Abstract. With the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) crisis the debate about police violence emerge as a major example of a counter-narrative, mainly relying on the online circulation of viral images. This article analyses the conditions for the emergence in public debate of a minority narrative thanks to digital media. Apart from activist communication, faced with powerful denial mechanisms, an autonomous alert process has been established based on the credibility of the documentary format, the argumentative dynamic of the online conversation, and the mobilization of an aesthetic of pity (pdf) (version française).

Since the revolutions of the Arab Spring in 2011, the idea has taken hold that digital technologies — smartphones and social media — could be used to spread the message and the imagery of protest movements autonomously, and that activist communication could make up for the inadequacies of media coverage. In France, the 2018-2019 gilets jaunes (yellow vests) crisis appeared to corroborate this theory. In 2020, the documentary The Monopoly of Violence (Un pays qui se tient sage), directed by the independent journalist David Dufresne, compiled and commented on fifty-five videos recorded during demonstrations by participants, witnesses or professional video journalists. The clips are presented as direct testimonies though there is no indication of where the footage came from nor of how it was virally selected. To the watching public most of the clips are recognizable: they were shared across social media and often picked up by television news, becoming some of the most discussed images of the crisis…

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