Guardian column: The media bastille

Chaos spreads from the web to the streets

The French riots have exposed how little we can control new media, as both sides of the conflict use the web for their own ends

Jeff Jarvis
Monday November 14, 2005
The Guardian

It’s anarchy. The long-oppressed masses are rioting. The old roles are confused, the old rules erased. Am I talking about the French riots or the internet? Both, of course. It is just my cheap, rhetorical trick to tie the two together. But the arrest last week of at least three young bloggers for allegedly using their sites to incite violence precisely highlights the confusion this new medium brings. So does a controversial government official’s use of internet search advertising to push his inflammatory agenda. And so does old French media’s fear that covering this explosive story would only favour the politicians they do not favour.

Taken together, this illustrates how media used to be all about control – with journalists and governments managing the messages – but now are all about the loss of control. The audience took over the internet and blurred all the old lines: where is that line now between witnessing and reporting, between communications and conspiracy, between inciting violence and expressing rage, between speech and crime?

The three bloggers arrested in France used, a major radio station’s service, popular with young people. Agence France-Presse reported that one of their blog posts urged: “Unite, Ile-de-France, and burn the cops. Go to the nearest police station and burn it.” Is that an order or an opinion? If those were lyrics to an American rap song, would they bring arrest, furore, or fame?

Search and destroy

At the same time, the rioters’ political and media bete noire, interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy – who was blamed for worsening the violence when he called the rioters “racille”, which was first translated in the Guardian and elsewhere as “scum” and later as “rabble” – took out ads in Google to push his agenda. Business Week magazine reports that French Googlers who searched on such words as “riots,” “burned cars”, and “violence” saw ads sending them to a petition to support Sarkozy. In the old days, maybe two years ago, the minister would have held press conferences. Now he speaks through a search engine.

The police said that rioters have been using mobile messaging to coordinate their attacks in the Paris suburbs. These are the same techniques used by freedom-loving demonstrators in Ukraine and Lebanon and by political activists in the US. We now call them “smart mobs”. But they’re still mobs and can do the stupid things mobs do.

So they were all blamed for using this new medium, the internet, to cause violence. But it’s not as if they needed the internet to do this. It only made them more efficient.

I cannot help but bring my American perspective to this: every day, I drive to work passing through Newark, New Jersey, a city practically destroyed by rioting among poor African-Americans in 1967. Only today, two generations later, are new homes starting to fill the lots razed by the violence then. That is not because there has been some grand cultural and economic healing in Newark; it only indicates the heat of the real estate market in the state.

In both cases, in Newark in the 60s and in Paris today, media commentators trip over their tongues and ties, unsure where and how to place blame for the destruction: on the poverty, racism and anger that are said to spawn this violence or on the criminals who burn down their own communities. The victims are perpetrators, the perpetrators victims. And they are the easy targets of politicisation, caught between political correctness and law-and-order.

One French media executive thinks he can control that debate. Jean-Claude Dassier, director general of the news service TCI, complained at the NewsXchange conference in Amsterdam that media attention given the riots in France was “excessive” (though in America, it surely would be the subject of round-the-clock cable-news coverage usually reserved for storms). He also admitted that he censored coverage of the riots, not only because he did not want to goad the rioters into worse destruction, but also because he did not want to give ammunition to far-right politicians. “Politics in France is heading to the right and I don’t want rightwing politicians back in second, or even first place because we showed burning cars on television,” Dassier said.

The man is deluded. He thinks that he can not only control the debate but that he still controls media: that if he doesn’t show the images, they won’t be seen. But he does not control media. No one does any more. Such anarchy may appear frightening at moments such as these, in stories as uncontrollable as this one. But we should not be fooled into blaming the tool for its misuse when the tool can also be used for good. Free speech is not wrong even if it is used to inspire violence; technology is not bad even if it is used to incite destruction.

Information or ignorance

Dassier said that “journalism is not simply a matter of switching on the cameras and letting them roll. You have to think about what you’re broadcasting.” But now anyone can do precisely that: anyone can switch on a mobile phone and broadcast news from the scene to the world and no one can control it. And isn’t that good? Isn’t information better than ignorance?

American populist new-media extremist that I am, I believe that the tools that enable free speech are necessarily good. So you could say that those teenagers on their blogs incited violence – and since their posts have been censored and I don’t speak French, I’d be hard-pressed to argue.

Or you could say that instead of causing fires on the streets of Paris, these people used the internet to vent. We can debate whether to call the rioters who started fires scum or rabble or arsonists or criminals or victims. But do we really want to debate whether free speech is good or bad and should be silenced or not? Welcome to the storming of the media Bastille.

· Jeff Jarvis is a US-based media consultant who blogs at