Article originally published on Best Thinking.
When I logged in to my American Twitter account this morning to get my daily news, I took inventory of the trending words and hashtags featured in the left column. Post-Super Bowl weekend, three of the ten featured-hits had something to do with football and a few others were tied to current news events. But then, momentarily, #wecantbefriendsif cycled through the trending feed, reminding me that Twitter is just as much “social” as it is “media.”
I investigated this hashtag a bit further, finding a mixed stream of friend standards that were honest, sarcastic, spiteful, sentimental, and superficial. On occasion, however, remarks anchored with #wecantbefriendsif were downright offensive.
The free-range, anonymous, nature of social media platforms like Twitter gives those who publish malicious insults the same leeway as those who simply take a thread of humor too far. But France’s Minister for women’s rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, has no patience for poor judgment and a zero-tolerance policy on hate speech–even when it’s confined to 140 characters.
In January, Twitter became a breeding ground for homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic commentary in France. As reported by The Guardian, hashtags like SiMonFilsEstGay (“If my son is gay”), SiMaFilleRamèneUnNoir (“If my daughter brings a black man home”), and #UnBonJuif (“A good Jew”) were used to curate offensive Tweets in a public space beyond the reaches of French law that criminalizes hate speech.
Twitter, an American company backed by an unyielding reverence for First Amendment rights in the United States, holds that censorship lies outside of its bounds. The Paris office of the French Union of Jewish Students, on the other hand, brought Twitter to trial in France for enabling users to post anti-Semitic comments that stand in direct violation of local law. In what many commentators have referred to as a “clash of cultures,” American free-speech ideals were unable to circumscribe France’s strict commitment to holding perpetrators accountable. The French court ordered Twitter to take down offensive tweets and hand over user info that could be used to trace sources for formal prosecution.
Those who oppose any level of censorship over free speech worry that granting foreign governments the right to regulate platforms like Twitter will exacerbate the issues rather than solve it.
As demonstrated by Twitter users in unstable nations like Syria, the potential for online platforms like Twitter to empower citizens is great. When used as a tool against civil society, however, Twitter can cause much more harm than its cheery, winged icon seems capable of and France certainly won’t be the last European nation to challenge Twitter’s domain.
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