PARIS – French rioters have set the country on fire and Emmanuel Macron points the finger at TikTok and Snapchat for pouring fuel on hell.
Over the past three days, violent protests have erupted across France after a police officer in a Paris suburb shot and killed 17-year-old Nahel M., of North African descent. Rioters targeted public buildings, transportation systems and shops with bullets and Molotov cocktails, resulting in the injury of 249 law enforcement personnel and the arrest of 875 people.
Unlike the deadly outbreak of violence in 2005, the riots – which led to the closure of public transport, the cancellation of concerts and the deployment of armored vehicles across the country – can be documented in real time, shared online and viewed from tens of thousands of people on social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat and Twitter.
This online phenomenon is worrying French political leaders, who have rushed to find solutions as the riots show no sign of abating.
“We have seen violent rallies organized on several [social media platforms] – but also a kind of imitation of violence,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday after a government crisis meeting. He accused the younger rioters of stepping out of reality and « living the video games that have intoxicated them ».
The French president wants tech companies to take down violent content and provide law enforcement with the identity of protesters who are using social media to fuel – and exacerbate – the disorder. « I expect these platforms to be accountable, » he said.
Second search for the most watched news channel in France, BFM, TikTok and Snapchat were flooded with videos of rioting and looting across France on Friday morning. On TikTok, hashtags related to riots were pushed by the platform’s algorithm. Police officers he also told BFM some protesters coordinate and communicate in real time through WhatsApp and Telegram messaging services via online tools that didn’t exist in 2005, when rioting caused damage to hundreds of public buildings and burned thousands of cars.
The government is expected to meet on social media platforms on Friday evening, where company executives will be urged to cooperate.
Some, however, argue that social media platforms are unfairly blamed by prominent politicians who should focus their attention elsewhere.
On Friday, the UN human rights office intervened, saying France faces « issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement, » referring to the teenager’s killing.
Technology has long been used to coordinate rallies and protests, political communications expert Philippe Moreau Chevrolet told POLITICO, adding that the government would be « terribly out of touch » to respond to the crisis by focusing on tech companies and video games.
“Text messages were charged [of facilitating riots], now it’s social networks. The Yellow Vest protests were blamed on Facebook, » Moreau Chevrolet said.
Two sides of the coin
But the role of online platforms goes beyond showcasing fires and looting and helping rioters organize. This week’s violent riots began with a video that was, of course, posted on social media.
« There has clearly been a shift, with more and more people adopting the reflex of filming the police. Most importantly, the activist community is now able to circulate videos quickly and widely, » said Magda Boutros, a sociologist at the University of Washington who studied activism against police violence in France.
When a police officer shot and killed Nahel M. (the name by which he has been publicly identified) on Tuesday, media reports it was originally based on law enforcement sources alleging that a driver threatened the police officer’s life. But a video, shot by a passerby and posted on Twittershowed a different story: two policemen were standing next to a car and one shot the driver at point blank range.
Another recent incident (major, not filmed) showed the power of social media to hold abusive police officers accountable and the ability to set a country on fire or not.
Two weeks ago, a teenager he died under similar circumstances such as Nahel M. in the Charente region of western France. The young man was reportedly killed by a police officer for refusing to comply.
This has gone relatively unnoticed, explained former French MP Thomas Mesnier, because Charente is more remote than the dense outskirts of the French capital.
It also went unnoticed, Mesnier said, because « there was no video that went viral on social networks, participating and reinforcing people’s emotions and sense of fear. »
Elisa Bertholomey contributed to the report.