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France

Eye on France: Laughing Out Loud as harassment joke turns sour

media Victim support: Junior Minister for Sexual Equality, Marlène Schiappa. CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP

The Laughing Out Loud League might sound like a group of superhero humourists. In fact they turn out to be a Twitter user group accused of serious online harassment, notably of women.

The group was formed in 2009 by Vincent Glad, a journalist who today works for the daily paper Libération. He says there were, and still are, about thirty members, most of them working in the goldfish bowl which is Paris journalism, with a few advertising execs and PR specialists.

Influential dudes, in other words, and mostly men. Although several reports in today’s papers refer to “one or two women members” of the original group, no report names any woman who admits ever having been part of the LOL League.

And, when you realise what they have been getting up to, that absence of women from the inner circle will probably come as no surprise.

The original idea was for this group of young males-on-the-make in the world of Paris media to share private jokes, sometimes about their female colleagues.

But then they started sharing photos, not all of them genuine, along with comments questioning the professionalism of some of their targets. As the Twitter audience grew exponentially, so the impact of these supposedly private messages became ever greater.

Make fun of everything and anyone!

There was no original anti-feminist agenda, claims another founding member of the group. “We made fun of everyone and everything.” But then, he explains, “it began to crystallise around certain individuals. The same names cropped up. Certain members' obsessions began to show through.”

Some of the victims have spoken of having their “lives destroyed”, their professional “reputations ruined”.

Nora Bouazzouni, for example, who writes about cookery and TV series, says many young women journalists were terrified by the power of the group and were afraid to take action against them.

Bouazzouni herself was the victim of online insults, unflatteringly retouched photos, film sequences with her head added to the body of a porno actress.

Another victim says the insults directed at her were specially tailored: since she is black, she got a double dose of insults, both sexist and racist.

Crisis of personal and professional confidence

Lucile Bellan, a journalist who works for the online magazine Slate, says she suffered years of low, nasty personal attacks, and even had her identity pirated. Which left her with a crisis of confidence in herself and in her ability as a journalist.

Mélanie Wanga, who produces a podcast called Le Tchip, says the LOL Group forced her off Twitter. But she has made a brief and spirited return to condemn what she calls “a pyramid of shit-eaters, who harass other people to prove to the boss that they are important”. She says the original group treated it as a game, bullying feminists, members of the LGBTQ community, and racial minorities.

Beauty blogger Capucine Piot says she was the “daily victim” of the group, and that her life became “hell”.

Florence Porcel, who writes about science subjects, was called by a group member, who has since been identified as David Doucet, the current editor of the magazine Les Inrockuptibles, offering her a fake job.

The call, including Porcel’s delighted acceptance, was circulated among the group and was taken off the SoundCloud only last Friday.

According to French law, impersonating another person under such circumstances is a crime punishable by one year in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros.

David Doucet admits that he did it, but says he had no idea of how much damage his joke would cause. He says he left the group six years ago. He does not say he’s sorry.

A wolf-pack of cool white guys

The victims were predominantly, but not only, women. Lam Hua is a presenter on an internet TV channel. He describes the LOL group as a “wolf pack of 30-year-old white guys, so convinced that they’re cool as to be unable to apologise to their victims.”

Since the organisers of the online harassment were in, and indeed, still occupy, positions of power, the victims frequently find themselves asking their tormentors for work, which creates a difficult, not to say surreal, situation, especially if the subject bears on a feminist topic.

Some of the founders of the group have offered a sort of apology to their victims, while emphasising that they gave up all LOL activity years ago.

A sort of apology

Vincent Glad, for example, says he accepts that he created a monster that got out of his control.

Henry Michel says he’s sorry, apologises to anyone he hurt, and describes himself as ashamed, miserable and knocked out by the scandal.

Alexandre Hervaud, who works at Libération, begins by apologising before telling the do-gooders who are jumping with joy to clean up their own acts and, I quote, “boil their bare asses”.

Florence Porcel wants all those involved to resign from their fancy jobs and support women candidate to replace them. That probably won’t happen.

Mixed messages on the political front

There has been a political reaction, with the Junior Minister for Sexual Equality, Marlène Schiappa, yesterday tweeting her support for the victims. She says the internet is innocent, but the use we make of it can be merciless.

Her parliamentary colleague, Aurore Bergé, who is also a spokeswoman for the ruling Republic on the Move party, has also been quick to condemn the harassers.

Unfortunately, Aurore Bergé was aware of the LOL Group in 2010, when she was informed of their activities in a Tweet from a constituent. To which she replied: “I have read your message and assure you that I don’t give a flying fart.”

She may end up caring a bit more before we hear the last of Laughing Out Loud.

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