Can the French civilize Twitter? Should they try?

It’s no secret that relationships in France are très compliqué, especially for the country’s ruling elite. President François Hollande was stuck in a tricky tryst between his long-term partner and his lover. His predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, pursued a high-profile relationship with model and singer Carla Bruni after his second wife left him. And even François Mitterand had a love child, only revealed after as he came to the end of his political career.

But it’s not just their love lives that French officials find tough to negotiate: the internet, too, gives them plenty of heartache.

One example? A series of offensive Twitter memes that swept through France over the past couple of weeks has provoked a strong reaction at the highest levels.

First came #UnBonJuif (“A good Jew”), which became the spark for a volley of anti-Semitic jokes. Then there was #SiMonFilsEstGay (“If my son was gay”). You can guess the rest. Clue: it wasn’t nice. France has a particular sensitivity to hate speech, and the torrent of Twitter abuse prompted Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Minister for Women’s Rights, into action. In the pages of Le Monde, she denounced those spewing racist and homophobic messages and said she plans to start a consultation involving Twitter in the New Year to see what can be done to stop the tide.

Homophobic remarks, she said, were “in absolute contradiction with the values of the Republic”.

Of course she’s right — homophobia is vile. But it will be interesting to see where this goes. Is it grandstanding from a politician, or will there be a genuine policy that gets produced? The way the government chooses to act could be indicative of its approach to the internet… and it could go either way.

After all, seen in one context, this is yet another attempt by French officials to “civilize” the internet. That’s been a regular refrain from French leaders, first with Sarkozy and now under the man who replaced him. The internet — an American invention — is a debasing force on France, a threat to l’exception culturelle, and a powerful disruptor that must be kept in check.

But it’s not just France that feels this pressure. In another sense, this is just one small part of the much wider struggle between Europe’s establishment and the social media. Governments across the continent have been sent into a tailspin over internet freedoms. Germany has struggled with Neo-Nazis on Twitter, and Britain probably has the best — or worst — form on this. It’s thrown people in prison, dragged silly court cases on forever, and held parliamentary investigations into how social media up-ends the order of things.

Gun ownership mapAnd the battle between Twitter and free speech is isn’t just an issue in Europe, or in censorious regimes. The same questions are appearing, if in slightly altered forms, in America. Take the unmasking of Reddit troll Violentacrez, or the decision to publish the addresses of registered gun owners. Even in America, people are beginning to understand that “free speech” doesn’t mean “speech without consequences”. Exercising your right to say what you like to extremes doesn’t mean you won’t get held accountable.

Perhaps it’s all to be expected.

It’s nearly a year since Twitter announced that it would censor tweets in some jurisdictions — an agreement that it largely got blasted for, even if it was sensible. Now officials are trying to flex their muscles.

However, when new legislation gets mooted (as it inevitably does) we need to remember that almost every country already has ways of dealing with hate speech in real life, they just need to understand sensible ways of applying those laws in the online environment. For example, when Twitter users falsely accused a British politician of being a child abuser, I pointed out that legal recourse to tackle was already there. Lord McAlpine has wasted no time acting on that.

At the same time, ordinary people — who have suddenly been granted a super power — need to understand where social media slots into the spectrum between private conversation and public broadcast. After incorrect — and potentially dangerous — information rebounded around the network after the Sandy Hook shootings, I argued that if Twitter allows anyone to become their own media outlet, then we should all assume individual responsibility for what we tweet.

Nothing changes, but we need to navigate this course very carefully. Let’s see if France decides to take the high road or the low.