Due to a weird twist in US law, online harassment by a group is not a crime. However, that will change from 2024. In this piece, we present Alice Marwick’s scientific research into this practice. We ourselves have analysed two Belgian cases of politically motivated network harassment. Each time, the victim was a woman and it was a right-wing male politician who inflamed his mob of followers.
The difference between online stalking and online lynching
Stalking online is punishable, if the moderation of the social media site is willing to cooperate. If it concerns physical threats, inciting others to use violence, sexual harassment, racist and/or discriminatory statements, disclosing sensitive personal information, spreading false rumors, hate speech or identity theft, all criminal offenses, you can report it . You can have an online post that clearly violates “Community Guidelines” deleted.
Social network sites have poorly paid staff for that. But having to report again and again is exhausting and demoralizing, so you might want to put an end to it for good. You can sue your stalker in court, but for that you need the details of your stalker because he usually operates anonymously. To find out the name and e-mail of the stalker, it is not enough to refer to that one post. You must be able to demonstrate that one and the same troll is constantly violating the ‘Community Guidelines’. If you can, you may get the necessary information from the moderation. And only then you can take further legal action if you have the resources to do so.
But you cannot prove that with online lynching, because they are all different individuals who are harassing you. They interact with each other through the network and share the same radical beliefs on a particular topic. Your message was about that and was a violation of the particular norms and values they apply. And they don’t take that. They want to silence you and they are not scrupulous at all. They might commit criminal offences.
Yet in such a case, the moderators themselves indicate that they cannot do anything about it, because it is not stalking in the sense that the law in the United States does consider it. It assumes that to consider it as stalking, one and the same person repeatedly has harassed another person. The ‘terms of service’ of most network sites are based on that legislation. Being harassed by a mob is therefore not one of them. Once the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) has been fully rolled out, this problem should be solved because it assumes that things that are illegal offline should also be illegal online, at the latest January 1, 2024.
North American assistant communications professor Alice E. Marwick has researched the phenomenon of online lynching. In that investigation she uses the scheme shown below. She calls it ‘morally-motivated networked harassment’, abbreviated as MMNH.
Lynching online, according to Marwick, can be defined as the harassment of a person online by a group of people who have a network through social media. This often leads to self-censorship of the victim. Persistent harassment even occasionally drives people away from the internet. That means that you are then socially dead in the digital world. And that is often the intention. And yet it goes unnoticed by the moderation.
The business model of networking sites naturally encourages as many network interactions as possible and whether that endangers people’s safety, facilitates social exclusion or causes psychological trauma, They couldn’t care less. In fact, the moderation would then have to tap an entire group of stalkers on the fingers, possibly excluding them if they violate the ‘community guidelines’. Technically this is not a problem because the social network management knows perfectly who posted what and when and also who the victim was. And they also know the interrelationships between those users. Meta is even the champion in that regard, according to Forbes it is the best research lab for human behaviour online. Yet they leave online lynching undisturbed, because intervention could quickly cost them many members and according to Frances Haugen. Facebook time and again prefers profit over safety.
The discourse of the online lynchers is turbo newspeak. It turns the victim’s arguments upside down. Feminists who complain about discrimination are accused of ‘misandry’, the opposite of the widespread misogyny. Fighting racism and fascism is attacking the right to free speech and so on.
Marwick formulates the result of her research as follows:
“According to the MMNH model, networked harassment has three primary outcomes. First, echoing previous research, targets of harassment experience depression, anxiety, and other negative emotional consequences. Second, these emotional consequences often lead to self-censorship on the part of the target, causing them to decrease their online public presence. Finally, networked harassment reinforces the norms of participating networks, solidifying the boundaries between them and others.”
Moral indignation as a political weapon
Today it is difficult to think of a topic on which we can all agree. There is a dispute about everything: politics, culture, eating habits, lifestyle, … it does not stop. Typically, people really start to identify with their beliefs online, even if they may change their mind about that matter at least three times in their lives. Which in itself is healthy. Views evolve depending on the knowledge and experience one gains and the world does not stand still either. But in these anxious times there appears to be no room for Cartesian doubt. People get stuck and cling to the few certainties they have left. However, doubt is the bridge to dialogue, it makes you realize you can’t handle it all alone.
The moral outrage of network intimidation is therefore usually genuine. Sometimes you can play a little comedy as a tactical move, but constantly being a hypocrite? It is scraping in the long run. But if online lynching is used as a political weapon, you can only see it as an attempt to conquer hegemony. Ethical considerations are not involved this time. Online intimidation because of so-called moral indignation, while it is really about the conquest of political power, is actually a sham indeed . “Un train en peut cacher un autre”. A lot of politicians today change their minds faster than the wind is turning. You can catch them almost permanently for inconsistencies, but they always talk their way out in one way or another.
That the laxity of social media, which turns a blind eye to all kinds of political manipulation, harms democracy, has been sufficiently demonstrated since the revelations about Cambridge Analitica. But you should not underestimate the intelligence of the fervent tweeter, instagrammer or facebook user. In the meantime, they are also on their guard.
Online lynching only becomes really dangerous when the mainstream media (newspapers, magazines, radio and television) also get entangled in the nets of politicians. Politicians have been active on social media for more than a decade. Right-wing and far-right politicians in particular had no problems with intimidating people online in recent years. Offline, the same politicians continue as they were used to. Intrigues are a daily practice and they lie as if it were printed. My hypothesis is that the combination of online and offline manipulation is really deadly. Two contrasting examples from our small country that confirm this preliminary.
Case one: Theo Francken against Bieke M.
On Thursday, August 18, 2022, Het Nieuwsblad titled: Theo Francken (N-VA) clashes with a civil servant about Front Night: “Vol haat en misprijzen” (Full of hatred and contempt). What was it about? Frontnacht had programmed a festival with music groups for the Yzerwake in Ypres in 2022, linked to the neo-Nazi scene and known for writing clearly racist texts. The City Council had conditionally agreed to this despite Groen’s protest in the Municipal Council. But it was kept out of the news, only the newspaper De Standaard had devoted an article to it, three months before the event.
Some anti-racist NGOs and the Peace Movement questioned the festival and raised their voices, but they were flatly ignored. The statement by Thorsten Hindrichs, a German scientist specializing in the far-right music scene, “I advise people of color not to come near Ypres that weekend”, finally dd light the fuse. Then the politicians almost fell one over another to react. The party chairmen of Vooruit and Open VLD (two of the three parties in the Ypres City Council) protested. Conner Rousseau even threatened to leave the coalition. It was now clear that this was no longer tenable for the Ypres College of Mayor and Aldermen. They were going to ban that performance.
The N-VA, which was also in that city council coalition, kept its lips tight for the time being. Until then, not a single N-VA member had said anything about it. Only a few hours before the College of Aldermen made the ban official, Theo Franken broke the silence and expressed his dissatisfaction on Twitter about those racist neo-Nazi performances. Bieke M. reacted mockingly with the message: “The debate sheets are finally ready”. And thereupon Theo Franken released his dogs. Why?
This requires some explanation. The N-VA is known for streamlining all external communication of party members via debate sheets. And of course it is been alluded often by the opponents of the party. Apparently this was once too much for Theo Franken. He responded with an angry tweet in which he revealed Bieke’s full name and where she worked, namely at Fedasil, the federal agency for the reception of asylum seekers, which was under his guardianship when he was State Secretary for Asylum, Migration. and Administrative Simplification in the Federal Government Michel. The whole event is summarized in the screenshot below of a tweet.
Bieke is not a politician but just a civil servant. She has been fairly active on Twitter since 2011, usually quite lucid, never aggressive but left and critical of the right. She managed to collect about 5.800 followers, not bad but not comparable to the number of followers of Theo Franken: 139.800, active on Twitter since 2012. Franken has become popular defending his tough stance on migration and asylum. He travelled all over Flanders to have talks at party gatherings and meetings at several universities, invited by right wing circles of students. He regularly appeared on television as Secretary of State. He is still a Member of Parliament and is still occasionally invited to the cameras as his party’s defence specialist. Davida against Goliath so in terms of range.
It is therefore not surprising that Theo was able to unleash a smear campaign against Bieke. First she received all kinds of nasty accusations on Twitter itself, but then also in her mailbox at Fedasil. If you know where someone works and you know their full name, it’s easy to figure out their email address. Theo had taken care of that. Below is an example of such an email.
But Theo probably did miscalculate because Bieke got a lot of support from other twitterers. Then Theo started kicking on Twitter, but that returned like a boomerang. The criticism of his performance expanded and even made the newspaper, the article in the Nieuwsblad, with which we started this story. And then the fun was over. For now, Theo can’t do much. Civil servants can only be fired for really serious professional errors. This does not mean that if another N-VA member ends up at Fedasil after the next elections, he will not bully Bieke. But for now it is 1-0 for Bieke.
Case two: Bart De Wever against Zakia Khattabi
The confrontation between Zakia Khattabi and Bart De Wever already started during the 2019-2020 government formation. Both Bart De Wever, chairman of N-VA, and Zakia Khattabi, co-chairman of Ecolo, took part in these negotiations. But as often happens in Belgian politics, they couldn’t find an agreement. They were stuck. The Wetstraat journalists followed the whole circus, day by day. And while there was usually no news at all, they still had to report every day to their respective media outlets. But all they could tell was who drove in and who drove out. In such an almost surreal situation, journalists become manipulable.
Folks on Twitter were not bound to stick to the facts. Via the ‘hashtag’ #regeringsformatie you get a selection of what was suggested there. But what was never occurred during this kind of negotiations was the spreading of false rumors from one negotiator about another negotiator. Although the N-VA had not vetoed the participation of the ecologists, a matter of not being accused of unwillingness afterwards, it clearly did not succeed between those two. The positions were too far apart.
If the N-VA wanted to have a chance of participating in the federal government, it had to sideline at least one of the green parties that had clung to each other. There is no evidence that they deliberately devised and implemented that plan. But there are not many other explanations for what followed. The party did succeed in making everyone believe that Zakia Khattabi no longer wanted to sit in the same room with Bart De Wever. And they used Twitter for that. Below is the tweet of Karl Vanlouwe, Flemish MP and senator for the N-VA, stating this false rumour.
That tweet attack was repeated several times by lesser party soldiers. But such a message only gets real distribution when someone with a lot of influence from outside the party takes it from them. And Rik Torfs took care of that, currently 169.100 followers, not to be ignored by Terzake, ex CD&V politician, ex-rector of the KUL and fellow townsman of Lorin Parys at that time re-elected in the Flemish parliament for N-VA, but in the meantime also ex-politician.
Zakia Khattabi left Twitter on July 28, 2019. She explains to Bruzz why she left Twitter, referring to the false accusation that she did not want to sit in the same room with Bart De Wever:
“The last three weeks have been hallucinatory. I was criticized for positions I never took. I’ve asked to list the – non-existent – sources, in vain. It created a buzz that I didn’t understand. At times I got hundreds of notifications per minute.”
Political scientist Dave Sinardet (VUB) in Ter Zake about that conflict:
“Ecolo is rapidly losing its credibility as a governing party”
Khattabi’s comment on it:
“I’m used to trolls attacking me, but this time even analysts like Dave Sinardet followed these theses.”
The rectification, the real story behind that false accusation, will not be read until Saturday, September 19, 2020 in De Standaard. But by then it was too late. It was apparently Loryn Parys who was at the origin of that false rumour. Khattabi explains:
“But that is not true! The vice president of the N-VA, Lorin Parys, once said that. When Johan Vande Lanotte (SP.A) and Didier Reynders (MR) were informers, they wanted to organize a second round of discussions at a certain point. I then told them that there was no point in convening a meeting with Ecolo and N-VA. Some programs are so far apart that it doesn’t make sense to try to reconcile them. We would have to make so many concessions that nothing would be left for anyone. But that statement about Mr De Wever, no way. People often say that I am frank and direct. Well, wouldn’t I say it if I said something like that? Je l’assumerais, no problem.”
So not only the media had fallen into the trap, also the political scientist on duty. This already took place during the first round of negotiations (May 30, 2019 – October 7, 2019), with 21 more to follow.
The ecological parties were temporarily eliminated, but that was not the end of it. On 1 and 2 September, two rare vacancies appeared in the Belgian Official Publication. Anyone aged 40 or over and having served in parliament for at least five years can apply to become a judge at the Constitutional Court. Former socialist minister Erik Derycke retired, as did former senator for Ecolo Jean-Paul Snappe. The judges are appointed for life by a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate alternately. The Court consists equally of French and Dutch speakers on the one hand, and experienced academics, magistrates or former politicians on the other. In practice, the political parties divide the appointments according to their strength in parliament.
So after Ecolo submitted Kathabi’s candidacy for one of those posts – the party was entitled to it according to that typical Belgian practice – the N-VA started a campaign on Twitter against her nomination with the hashtag #khattabi. Scroll through it, and you’ll see what the entire N-VA was involved in and that her Twitter followers jumped on the bandwagon. During that campaign, Zakia Khattabi was falsely accused for the second time. She is alleged to have been involved in preventing the deportation of a rejected Tunisian asylum seeker. And this was not only discussed on Twitter but also in the media. Although Khattabi was on the flight where the eviction was supposed to take place, she was not involved at all, according to the police who were present at the eviction. But it did stick to her. And Vlaams Belang and N-VA continued to repeat it again and again.
After three votes in the Senate, she was not nominated ultimately. Not a two-thirds majority. N-VA and Vlaams Belang voted against. The MR decided not to vote for Khattabi, but did vote for the second choice candidate that Ecolo had to nominate according to the rules. CD&V had also decided to do so, independently of the MR, according to De Standaard. Khattabi then decided to give up herself. Ecolo was obliged to nominate another candidate.
Twice the N-VA has done its trick with scheming and spreading disinformation, but it has not achieved its ultimate goal, namely getting into the federal government. A bit of a pyrrhic victory. Zhakia Khatabi is now in that government as Minister of Climate, Environment and Sustainable Development. And she’s even back on Twitter and has almost 7.850 followers. But for that she first had to go through the desert.
You may also wonder why N-VA targeted Khattabia from the start. They might as well have tried to take out Almalci van Groen. But they probably wouldn’t have succeeded. There would have been too much support from Flanders, as with Bieke M. Zakia Khattabi was everything that tough, often misogynistic, right-wing Flamingants hate, female, French-speaking, Moroccan and living in Brussels. Reaction from Flanders Bart De Wever should not fear that with his 187.100 followers.
The two stories are sufficiently documented and the readers can judge for themselves whether my hypothesis is correct or not. It should be noted, however, that it is no coincidence that two women were the victims of those eager lynchings.