The harassment scandal in French journalism has a silver lining

No laughing matter.
No laughing matter.
Image: EPA/Etienne Laurent
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In 2010, Léa Lejeune was just starting out in journalism in Paris when she befriended a few members of the Facebook group called “Ligue du LOL.” The group’s mostly male participants worked in the media, and were impressive in their savvy use of the then-nascent social media platform.

“At first glance, they are young guys, frisky, funny, festive, who work in the media outlets that make me dream or in communications and advertising,” Lejeune wrote in Slate (link in French). But things quickly turned sour. That well-connected Facebook group would become a platform for virulent online harassment, mostly targeting female journalists in precarious professional positions, or journalists of color, or LGBTQ writers— that is, “men who did not fit their ideal standards of manhood,” Lejeune wrote. (Lejeune declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Lejeune is one of a number of people, mostly women, who have testified in recent days to the online harassment they suffered at the hands of Ligue du LOL members. That harassment was first brought to light in a fact-checking article by the newspaper Libération (link in French), published last week, that sought to investigate a rumor heard by a reader: Did the Ligue du LOL really exist, and did its members really harass feminists on social networks? It did, the newspaper confirmed, unleashing a scandal that has shaken French media and exposed how systemic online harassment is in the country.

Some hope that if anything good could come from this crisis, it’s an awakening to how vicious and cruel France’s online world can be, and how powerless its victims, who are often marginalized, feel in the face of it.

“There is a growing distaste for abuse on social networks,” says Philippe Coen, the founder of Respect Zone, a nonprofit that has partnered with hundreds of online communities in France to endorse respectful online communication. “It brings you to a much broader debate,” he adds. “What do we want as a digital world of tomorrow?”

What is the Ligue du LOL?

The Ligue du LOL Facebook group was created by French freelance journalist Vincent Glad in 2009. A self-described “boy’s club,” the group comprised about 30 members of the media and communications industry. It’s unclear how the group devolved into what it would become known for: targeting women online, and occasionally other members of the group, with rape jokes and crude images. “The goal of this group was not to harass women. Only to have fun,” Glad wrote this week (link in French). “But quickly, our way of having fun became very problematic and we did not realize it.”

Members of the group photoshopped a female journalist’s face on a pornographic image (link in French). They set up fake Twitter profiles to send threatening and sexually explicit messages to prominent female bloggers or writers. They soon attracted an army of online trolls who would bombard individual journalists with up to 100 tweets in a day, sometimes at the group’s direction.

The harassment took on a different shape or tone to fit the victim. For Lejeune, it came in the form of almost-daily waves of offensive tweets between 2011 and 2013, as well as comments left on her feminist blog, and what she describes as Twitter “raids” of trolls commenting on her latest articles online and finding any mistake, however minor, to amplify to the world. One day, after she started working for Libération, she recalled receiving “50, 70, or 100 tweets” from “vulgar and offensive Internet users” egged on by the Ligue du LOL, calling her a slut, a whore, and for her to be raped.

“When we receive these kinds of messages at work, we don’t know how to react,” she wrote. “We tremble, we blush, we try to defuse things with humor, to justify ourselves to them or to do pedagogy.”

This harassment also manifested itself in the real world. One member, David Doucet, the online editor of Les Inrockuptibles (who has now been suspended), acknowledged that he prank called a female journalist, Florence Porcel, and pretended to be the editor of a famous TV show interested in hiring her full-time. He then recorded the interview and leaked the audio clip online. Porcel described on Twitter (link in French) how “when the recording was made public, I cried for three days of shame, humiliation, and fear.” She also described how she received repeated online harassment and threats before the call and how four or five members of the Ligue du LOL confronted her at her workplace, “to ask me for a service.”

This online harassment continued for years, but victims found it hard to show proof that it happened. As Lejeune explained, “almost all of these messages have been cleared, many accounts have been deleted.” About an hour after Porcel went public with her accusation against Doucet, she says the recording of her fake job interview was taken down. Others have described how members of the Ligue du LOL deleted scores of old tweets to avoid scrutiny.

Why didn’t the victims report the abuse more promptly? As Lejeune explained, “these people had important jobs, were friends with influential editors or people in management positions at Slate, Liberation, Inrocks… We were afraid of losing opportunities to work. And at the time, cyber-harassment was not yet punishable by law in France.”

The shame and silence of victims of online harassment is not unusual. As The New York Times’ Sarah Jeong wrote in her 2015 book, The Internet of Garbage:

For persecuted individuals, there is no eternal frontier to flee to. Certainly one could retreat by deleting one’s entire online presence, but this is not the promise of a boundlessly big internet. For targets of sustained online harassment, the internet is a one-room house full of speakers blaring obscenities at them.

The fallout

At least six members of the Ligue du LOL have been suspended, fired, or left their publications in the week since the scandal broke. Many have apologized publicly, including those who didn’t participate in the harassment but stood by and let it happen (link in French). It’s also led to soul-searching at the publications where members worked. Libération’s editor-in-chief recently wrote (link in French) that there was a need for “a reflection on the rules that must govern the expression of journalists on social networks when they do not speak on behalf of the newspaper.” And, perhaps most importantly, the victims were finally able to tell their stories, through editorials, on Twitter or on TV (links in French).

This scandal could not have come at a worst time for French media, as it battles criticism by the Yellow Vest protest movement, whose members accuse journalists of false reporting and parroting government propaganda. And even though the scandal has ignited a much-needed discussion of online harassment in France, the scope of the problem is huge: A 2018 study (pdf) commissioned by Respect Zone found that, between March 2017 and April 2018, Francophone journalists were hit with 364,000 “abusive” messages from 43,300 accounts on social media.

“There is not one week in the 52 weeks that make up a year when there is not a new scandal related to content or behavior on social networks,” Respect Zone’s Coen says. But he hopes that the unusual nature of this scandal—of “journalists harassing other journalists”—will sustain a larger debate in France about how people treat each other online. As Marlène SchiappaFrance’s secretary for gender equality, recently said in response to the scandal: “It’s not the internet that is ruthless, it’s what we make of it.”