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April 27, 2018 1:27 pm

Can Twitter Kill?

avatar by Alain Jakubowicz

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A keyboard. Photo: Wikipedia.

Every day on social networks people receive death threats for having expressed an opinion. Surprisingly few people seem concerned by this. Those who make the threats hide behind pseudonyms that provide anonymity and impunity, while the targets feign indifference to avoid exacerbating the problem and to protect those close to them. Indeed, many believe that responding to such threats merely encourages the threatener, winds up the hate machine, and increases the risk that eventually something will happen that can’t be taken back.

Here is an example of the phenomenon tied to current events.

Recently, Bernard-Henri Lévy, like many others, made known his views on the joint military action carried out by France, the United States, and Great Britain against the chemical weapons arsenals of Bashar al-Assad.

Within hours on April 15, Lévy became the object of an intense barrage of hatred on Twitter. The remarks were so virulent that I am moved to publish a selection here:

“You and your doggie pals are the Israeli fifth column. Dirty traitor you deserve to be stuck like a pig.”

“Really don’t understand why this guy is still alive…”

“@BHL do yourself a favor and buy a rope and put it to good use. Find a nice branch and leave this world.

“Watching Les Visiteurs sing ‘And we peeled his c**k … and strung him up by his guts!’ I don’t know why but you came to mind!

And we peeled his c**k
Like we did the bailiff of Limousin’s
Who we slew one fine day
And strung him up by his guts!”

“Those missiles should have been aimed right at your face.”

“@BHL is a complete moron who should be hanged for high treason. He put up the security deposit for the nutcases in #Libye. With #Libye no terrorism except #Libye attacks everyday. This piece of s**t is co-responsible, with #sarkozy, for the attacks on France.”

“I hope you die in excruciating pain, you sack of s**t.”

“You are a mass murderer you should have been locked up long ago. For you and just for you I recommend the death penalty.”

“Why do we always have to do what this pathological liar @BHL demands? WHY? He should be sent to Syria with his d**k and a knife. Good riddance.”

“To bad you weren’t strapped to one of those bombs…”

“The French people should erase you.”

“You are an embarrassment to France and I advise you to hide because a lot of people would like to strike you.”

One may find these “messages” to be trivial.

And, with all my heart, I hope they are.

But experience has taught me that words often precede action.

They can, as a great French poet said, have the weight of a bomb.

For that reason it may be time to break with our long-running ostrich strategy, which does not seem to be working.

Are social media platforms and legislators waiting for an online threat to be carried out before they act?

Must one of these incitements to violence be taken literally before we realize that what may seem unlikely today may be less so tomorrow, provided the will is there?

The solution is simple: close the accounts of users who threaten physical violence or incite others to commit violent acts.

Presently, the law does not impose such an obligation on social media hosts, which could take action on their own but appear to prefer to do nothing.

Meanwhile, our politicians reflect, draft bills that go nowhere, issue statements, and make speeches…

Until when?

If, God forbid, a tragedy were to occur, the demonstrations that would inevitably be organized, the contemporaneous great debate in the National Assembly, and the subsequent unanimous approval of legislation would in no way obscure the responsibility of those who could have prevented the tragedy but did not.

Let all of us shoulder our responsibilities. Before the unthinkable is carried into action.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy.

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