In France, Connecting Online to Unify not Divide Citizens

By Susan Corke, Director, Antisemitism and Extremism, Human Rights First and Ilan Scialom, Vice President, Coexister, France

The perpetrator of the Bastille Day attack on the promenade in Nice, France may have been even more devious than he realized. He chose a place where people of all faiths, races, ages, and income levels mingled. As French journalist Jules Darmanin, "Knowingly or not, the terrorists targeted a symbol of community, of something everyone shared."

But then that's the goal of every such terrorist attack: to rip apart society, to deprive citizens of a sense of security of community. It's the government's responsibility to strengthen the bonds of society, which are ultimately the best protection against terrorism. Unfortunately, in this traumatic year for France, the government has too often taken steps that push people apart. Most recently, the "burkini ban" further marginalizes Muslims. While a court's decision to strike down the ban restores a measure of sanity, the controversy has deepened divisions.

At a time of societal trauma, there is a natural tendency for communities to turn inward where common ground and shared identity already exist. Sometimes there's even competition between victimized groups. But solidarity among different religious, ethnic, and racial communities is essential. Jews and Muslims and other groups that face violence and discrimination have much to teach and learn from each other.

That's why our two organizations, one American and the other French, are teaming up to promote a new way of fighting hatred. We hope to encourage people to see hate violence--against a Muslim or Jew or anyone--for what it is: an attack on society, on the nation/state. And we want to inspire people to respond accordingly, not exclusively as a member of a group but also as a member of a society, a citizen, and to join forces with other citizens. We'll be focusing our initial energies on the Internet, where people are increasingly venting inflammatory rhetoric. Online hate speech is both cause and effect of societal divisions. There are also coordinated efforts by extremists groups to disseminate their destructive messages online. In France, and elsewhere, an explosion of hate speech online has coincided with an increase in hate crime and terrorism. This is no coincidence. Our goal is to combat destructive speech with constructive speech. We aim to empower citizens to use the Internet to pursue their vision of an inclusive society that recognizes diversity as a strength. On September 7, 2016, the Missions of Canada, Israel, the United States, and the European Union Delegation to the United Nations, will jointly host a forum on Global Antisemitism. One of the forum's topics--which our organizations, among others, will address--is "the need for broad, inclusive, and diverse civil society coalitions that support governments in their efforts to prevent and address hate crimes and discrimination." To that end, our organizations will host the first U.S.-French #BetterTogether summit on September 12-13 in Paris. This will be a pilot initiative of bilateral dialogue and, we hope, sustained collaboration. Our goal is to create a forum that brings together US and French civil society, the tech sector, and governments to form innovative, workable ideas for promoting unity and tolerance on the Internet. Online speech is only one aspect of am immensely complicated, far-ranging issue. But the Internet is a place where society comes together--or apart. As it becomes a more and more popular tool of communication and organizing, we should take steps now to ensure that it's a productive, unifying force.

Underlying this collaborative effort is a commitment to the universal values that American and French citizens share. After the November attacks in Paris, President Obama said, "We are reminded in this time of tragedy that the bonds of liberté and égalité and fraternité are not only values that the French people care so deeply about, but they are values that we share. And those values are going to endure far beyond any act of terrorism or the hateful vision of those who perpetrated the crimes this evening."

Liberté, égalité, and fraternité. The first two, freedom and equality, are much discussed and rightly cherished. But brotherhood (and sisterhood, for reasons of égalité) sometimes gets short shrift. But as seeks to combat violence motivated by hatred, there's nothing more important than coming up with ways to strengthen the connections between citizens and communities. Up against a unified society, the haters don't stand a chance.