February 26, 2019 — Paris, France
This piece originally appeared in HuffPost France.
By Shani Benoualid
A few days ago, France 3 suddenly interrupted its Facebook Live broadcast of President Macron’s visit to the Quatzenheim Jewish cemetery, where 90 graves had been desecrated earlier in the day.
Why? Because of the torrent of antisemitic comments that suddenly appeared under the video. Even though France 3 expected that this might happen and had prepared for it, the station was not able to stop the slew of hateful messages.
The journalist presenting the story was clearly annoyed. But what he said about it was a sad commentary on the situation. After conceding that trying to moderate the messages on the live feed had become impossible, he added: “a Facebook Live broadcast is doable, but without comments. Too bad for freedom of speech.”
Are we to see ourselves as no longer capable of defending freedom of expression, one of our most highly-prized values, one that has cost so many innocent lives, such as the victims at Charlie Hebdo?
Some may argue that threats to the internet and social media are not that serious, since it’s not real life, after all. But social media has an inevitable impact on events on our streets. The recent antisemitic incidents committed by those energized by the same sense of impunity provide ample evidence of this.
No, it would be unthinkable to abandon freedom of expression, to sacrifice our most basic principles, whether online or not.
The French government has made commendable efforts recently to fight online hate speech, but the road is a long one, as is the legislative process. Nevertheless, demanding that online platforms assume their substantial share of the responsibility is a necessary step, and our representatives realize this.
But the response must go much further. We in France like to try and control everything by creating laws, and that renders us passive. There is a battle to be fought in which the whole of civil society must fully engage. Each of us has a part to play.
As citizens, we have not only rights but also duties, including the duty of civic-mindedness. That responsibility continues even when we sit in front of our computers, telephones or tablets.
It is to defend such civic-mindedness, that I created, together with Audrey Lebioda and Xavier Brandao, the Facebook group #jesuislà (#iamhere). We can no longer remain silent in the face of expressions of hate, and urge others to join our ranks.
#jesuislà is the francophone little brother of the #iamhere network, which is slowly but surely extending its network of influence across the globe, and now brings together 75,000 members in Sweden - where it was created thanks to the courageous journalist Mina Dennert - 45,000 people in Germany, and another 6,000 in Slovakia.
Members are invited to take part in “shared actions” which are posted throughout the day in the group, and which culminate in “meetings” below press articles on Facebook, exactly where abusive comments tend to be found. We leave comments ourselves, ignoring those of any detractors, complete with our signature, the hashtag #jesuislà, which allows them to be easily identified. Members can do the same, or simply “like” the comments, the simple watchwords being respect and tolerance.
It goes without saying that there aren’t enough of us in this group to be able to claim that we’ve resolved the problem, which is not, in any case, limited to Facebook. Surely, the harm that Twitter can do when it disseminates hate speech and disinformation is also vast. The same goes for YouTube, concealed behind its unwavering owner Google.
But the results are plain to see, just as the logic is unquestionable. Facebook sorts messages according to their “relevance,” in other words, by the number of “likes” and comments that messages receive. If ours are more “relevant,” they rise to the surface directly below the article, thereby drowning out the mass of hostile comments or those bearing false information. Thanks to the collective efforts of #jesuislà, it is now difficult to find the sort of hateful messages that had been so much more prominent articles posted on social media.
And the good news doesn’t stop there. Several studies have shown that positive messages are contagious (and vice versa!), so there’s a subsequent domino effect. The content of the messages we read have a direct impact on what we write in turn.
Over the last few years I have been in close contact with people engaged in fighting online hate speech through AJC, where I work, which defends human rights and combats antisemitism, racism, and all forms of extremism. The efforts of these individuals and their achievements - particularly through the creation of innovative digital campaigns - are considerable, and the benefits are growing. But there are too few of us, even with all the good will in the world, to soak up the hate so dominantly afflicting our screens.
Just as we did in the aftermath of the 2015 attacks, we must stand shoulder to shoulder with victims. We must not abandon those who suffer abuse or any form of online attack. Let us never forget that words of hate and intolerance can transcend the virtual space and manifest themselves in the real world in the form of insults, aggression, and even murder. All those killed by extremists were first the targets of such threats.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and make our presence felt among those who assume that we are absent or resigned. We are, in fact, united. We are resilient. We are greater in number. And we are here.
Shani Benoualid is Assistant Director for Communications at AJC Paris and creator of the Facebook group #jesuislà