The Values of the Republic, the Rules of the Internet

Twitter LogoPhoto: eldh/

Twitter Logo
Photo: eldh/

“Twitter must find ways to ensure that messages sent in our territory, in our language and intended for our citizens do not contain manifest attacks against our fixed principles [sic].” — Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Minister for Women’s Rights / Government Spokesperson, 28 Dec. 2012, Le Monde

French President François Hollande hasn’t tweeted since May 18.

Granted, his personal Twitter account was rather boring — recycled excerpts of speeches, eager exhortations for the Republic and the French people and voting and democracy and change, occasional fun hashtags (searchable trending terms) to events that weren’t otherwise hashtag-worthy — but the fact that the President himself has abandoned his personal account to the digital trash heap of the ages while pushing the errant visitor to a boring, press-release heavy official palace account suggests that the Élysée has a lot to learn about social networking.

(It is not for nothing that a photo of U.S. President Barack Obama embracing his wife, American First Lady Michelle Obama, was the most retweeted tweet, ever. The White House knows the importance of a personal brand in social media, and that admittedly adorable and appropriate post-election photo expertly capitalized on that concept.)

A recent dustup over Twitter and la Republique further underlines the Hollande’s disconnect and discontent from the social media realities of the present.

In an essay that appeared in the December 28 ‘Ideas’ section of Le Monde, among other places, Najat Vallaud-Belakcem, French Minister for Women’s Rights and the Government’s Spokesperson, uses a series of offensive and homophobic recent hashtags to eloquently defend what she sees as the core values of the French Republic and highlight the issue of hate speech on Twitter.

Vallaud-Bealkcem praises French ‘liberty of expression’ while at the same time heralding Gallic laws that penalize hate or violent speech toward groups of individuals for their ethnicity, nationality or sexual orientation.

The minister goes on to link pending legislation protecting sexual minorities from violence and discrimination, and calls for a ‘national dialogue’ to determine a method through which well-meaning citoyens can make Twitter a better, cleaner place for all.

At the most basic level, I find a lot to like about this concept. Asinine trending topics on Twitter, a social network that was built around the open exchange of ideas and arguments, could instead spur a meaningful national conversation about discriminatory language and homophobia. A few misplaced tweets from a few angry users could instead change the dynamic of an entire thriving social media empire. Ahead of a pending legal showdown between a Silicon Valley success story and the Élysée palace, Vallaud-Bealkcem instead calls for conversation and reflection.

In a sense, Vallaud-Bealkcem is spot on. The Internet can be a remarkably terrible place.  For all the wonder and connectivity and communal spirit that the World Wide Web creates at any given moment, it also produces a wealth of hurt and shame and sorrow. In modern parlance, the Internet has truly become a massive democratic public market, where each and every person and idea and viewpoint has the hypothetically equal opportunity to battle it out for the verification of popular value.

In reality, the Internet isn’t quite that perfect of a market. It has its bullies, its trolls and more than its fair share of demons lurking to strike and wound and inflict the most awful of psychological harm.

It’s easy to find the most racist, sexist, xeno- and homophobic parade of socially removed bigots — just go to any random news organization’s comment section. Twitter and Facebook, too, have their fair share of offensive ideas re-tweeting their way around the hinterlands of social cyberspace.

The Internet can be terrible. But it’s remarkably foolish to assume we can legislate and restrict our way to a better, more political correct version of the Internet.

If the anti-discrimination laws pass — and it’s likely they will — Twitter will likely find a way to artfully accommodate the French government and avoid costly and ill-considered lawsuits against their San Francisco servers and operators. The company, for all its youthful bravura and California sheen, has a habit of quietly bending backwards to patch up tricky legal complications. The controversial court ordered turnover of user information from Occupy Wall Street protestors sent a nervous chill through many progressive net activist circles.

Twitter is, after all, a business, and to conduct business around the world it must follow local laws.

But I see a troubling precedent hanging in the balance if either Vallaud-Bealkcem’s proposed ‘dialogue’ or the approaching legal tidal wave has the intended effect.

Nobody likes hates speech. But even fewer people like to be muzzled. By limiting the digital speech of one group, the French government skirts on the infringement of all who use and sometimes even abuse the Internet.

The Internet has a way of publicly shaming those who abuse its poorly defined limits. American columnist and critic Nathan Heller outlined the practice in a charming November New York Magazine piece, showing how changing practices on the web have created a nearly overwhelming culture of nice — sort of like the digital equivalent of the Midwestern United States.

It took a while for the web to regularly ‘hate-shame’ its worst users for their vitriol and vigorous trolling. But it happened, it is still happening and it can only happen in the fullest and most open market possible. Only in the light of the commons can the dark trolls be fully convinced of their vicious folly.


  1. […] Merah’s should banish anti-semitism from the public place. That’s why Hollande restated that freedom of speech had to be limited on social networks like Twitter, and that calls for hate or murder (which are not […]

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