PARIS — The survivor of a terrorist attack in Paris, the parent of a victim of terrorism and a former hostage have been targeted online for their compassion toward the children of Islamic militants. All three are taking the social media giant to court for non-action in the face of serious harassment.
Social media platforms somehow manage to remain the center of public discourse yet struggle to address the ensuing legal responsibilities. This is, in any case, what the subpoena sent to Twitter on Jan. 28 on behalf of three online harassment victims is trying to prove.
Aurélia Gilbert escaped one of the ISIS-backed terrorist attacks that rocked Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, when assailants besieged the Bataclan, a popular concert venue. In the summer of 2020, she tweeted in defense of the repatriation of the children of French jihadists detained in Syria. Her tweets led to a flood of hate speech: "Too bad they missed her," "If all the victims of November 13th were like her, maybe it wasn't so bad after all."
"A line is being crossed and it's not just virtual," she said, still in shock. "My account was hacked, they published my phone number adding that I was a traitor to the country."
She filed a complaint with the Paris public prosecutor, which opened a preliminary investigation via the BRDP, a brigade dedicated to repressing delinquency. But, on Jan. 8 2021, her complaint was filed away without any follow-up: Twitter had simply not responded to the warrant ordering the company to provide information that would allow the identification of the accused harassers.
"I was told to stop going on social media, which isn't right. We can't let fear settle in — not at the Bataclan and not on social media."
Georges Salines, father of a young woman killed at the Bataclan, found himself in the same situation. He was also subjected to threats and insults following his tweet in favor of repatriating the children of French jihadists in Aug. 2020. He, too, filed a complaint that gave way to a preliminary investigation. Once again, Twitter refused to reply to the police's demands for information, this time claiming an international interrogation committee was needed. Due to a lack of response, the complaint was filed away. Salines is furious: "I find it incredible that the court can dismiss a case because the company ordered to provide information failed to do so."
The social network has dragged its feet in responding to court injunctions.
The third case is journalist Nicolas Hénin, who was taken hostage by ISIS for 10 months. Harassed with death threats on social media in 2019 because he reported a tweet calling for the murder of the children of jihadists, he filed a complaint and an investigation was opened. For a third time, Twitter — which had acknowledged the receipt of the police's requests — asked for clarification and delayed action for months, leading to the police's dismissal of the complaint due to the perpetrator being "unknown."
Whether due to a lack of resources or a deliberate policy, the social network has dragged its feet in responding to court injunctions, preventing many investigations of online harassment from being carried out.
Eric Morain and Antoine Vey, the lawyers of these three victims, have their sights set on bringing Twitter to task. They're suing the company through Paris' criminal court, accusing it of "complicity in public insult and provocation" and "refusal to comply with the request of judicial authorities" via its inaction. When contacted by Le Monde, Twitter declined to comment on the legal proceedings or the delays of its moderation process.
The platform is regularly singled out for its inefficiency to moderate content and their very long delays in suppressing messages. In June 2020, the annual barometer conducted by the European Commission on the effectiveness of moderation systems had particularly severe results for Twitter. Over the past year, it deleted only 35.9% of messages reported by European associations, whereas Facebook deleted more than 87% of reported content.
These figures do not "correspond to expectations" and are even "decreasing in comparison to 2019," according to the Commission. Twitter is also the social media platform that takes the longest to process reported content, as the law of many EU countries decrees reported content must be examined in under 24 hours and a quarter of Twitter's alerts take longer to be treated.
In France, the social network is also in a mediation procedure with four organizations: the Union of Jewish Students of France (UEJF), J'accuse, SOS-Racisme and SOS-Homophobia. In May 2020, following a "testing" phase during which these organizations noted only 11% of content they reported had been deleted by Twitter, they brought Twitter to court in order to obtain detailed figures on the resources the company devotes to moderation and their fight against hate speech.
During the hearing – which took place three days after Samuel Paty, a French teacher, was beheaded by a terrorist — the court proposed mediation, a decision accepted by all parties and this is still ongoing, according to Le Monde's sources. If the mediation fails, a new hearing will take place.
"Facebook has no problem responding to judicial warrants. But this is not the case with Twitter," Morain explains. In Sept. 2020, an internet user who posted a video on Facebook threatening to kill Mila, a young woman harassed for her hostile attitude towards Islam, was condemned to three years in prison with 18 months imposed serving time. and his sentence was upheld during an appeal on Jan. 28.
On Twitter, it's much more difficult to identify and convict a perpetrator of harassment. "And yet these are serious cases," continues Morain, who feels the social network "doesn't do enough to ensure the safety of its users."
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