The #ligueduLOL cyberbullying case is the French media’s day of reckoning | Cécile Guerin


The French media world has been in the grip of a deep crisis for the past few days. The people at the heart of the scandal say it started as a “joke”, and stemmed from a desire to share some “black humour”. If that is the case, the #ligueduLOL controversy has turned out to be something much darker, and has exposed the everyday abuse that women and minorities face on social media.

The Ligue du LOL is the name of a closed Facebook group in which about 30 young and successful journalists, media professionals and early-day Twitter influencers allegedly coordinated cyberbullying, trolling and Twitter campaigns against other social media users (mostly women, as well as feminist and LGBT activists) between 2009 and 2012. Some of them continued their activities for years after the group was closed.

The case resurfaced last week when French newspaper Libération’s fact-checking website Check News published a story titled “Did the Ligue du LOL really exist?” Since then, other stories of cyberbullying, including the existence of messaging groups within/at several newspapers in which sexist and homophobic comments were exchanged, revealed the persistence of a culture of intimidation in sections of the French media.

There are signs that things might be about to change. Since the story emerged, dozens of men and women have shared experiences of humiliation, lost confidence and destroyed career opportunities. YouTuber and video journalist Florence Porcel accused members of the Ligue of harassing her in her workplace. “Reading so much filth about me on social media convinced me that I was worth nothing,” tweeted former web journalist Capucine Piot.

Government members have also weighed in on the debate. The secretary of state for equality, Marlène Schiappa, tweeted her support for the victims of the group. Mounir Mahjoubi, in charge of France’s digital affairs, described the controversy as a “story of losers”, of men “who thought they were the kings of the internet”.

The overwhelming response to the case has forced the media industry to face its moment of reckoning. Libération, Huffington Post and Les Inrocks, among others, have adopted disciplinary sanctions against employees and vowed to conduct investigations. Other news outlets announced they would end their collaboration with alleged harassers. And, as could be expected, most of the accused have issued some form of apology.

But the victims of online harassment and cyberbullying need more than apologies and individual sanctions. They need legal protection and a cultural shift away from the toxic masculinity that continues to pervade too many newsrooms.

Olivier Tesquet, a journalist at Télérama and former member of the Ligue, summed up the culture that pervaded a largely male-dominated group: “The Ligue du LOL was a ‘boys’ club’. You were better off in than out, at least that’s what I told myself.”

Woman shares footage of assault by street harasser at Paris cafe - video

There is momentum in France for change. The #MeToo movement, despite facing a mixed reception in the country, reactivated a long-lasting debate about gender equality and against harassment. Last year, footage of a man punching a woman outside a Parisian cafe went viral, and increased support for tougher sanctions on sexist abuse and harassment.

The French government has acted on this change of public mood and has set out to tackle harassment online and offline. Last May, France passed a bill introducing fines for sexist abuse and street harassment – which included a definition of group harassment. It is also set to adopt new legislation against hate speech online later this year, which will put pressure on social media companies to remove hateful content more quickly and step up their efforts against cyberbullying.

Whether the #ligueduLOL case will become the media industry’s #MeToo movement remains uncertain, but it has opened a long-overdue debate about the culture of toxic masculinity and harassment in parts of the French media.

Cécile Guerin is a freelance French journalist based in London