Death threats, rape threats and relentless abuse: the scandal rocking French media

In short: they aren’t nobodies. It is also hard to miss the fact that most of them ended up at young, left-leaning publications.

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It all started with a subtweet. “Isn’t he great, this perfect journalist now playing the role model after having had so much fun harassing feminists as a pack”, Slate journalist Thomas Messias tweeted on Friday in his native French. “Isn’t he great”.

Alexandre Hervaud from Libération replied: “Not sure who this brave subtweet was aimed at, but it does illustrate the paradoxical bitterness of some zealous activists: they want to change society, but cannot stomach the idea that someone can actually change – they’re too questionable, it’s too late.”

“Changing is good. Apologising to the people you harassed would be better”, TV writer Aïcha Kottmann shot back.

And then the floodgates opened.

*****

Actually, it all started with a Facebook group. La Ligue Du LOL (LdL) was created in 2009 by Vincent Glad, then an up-and-coming journalist. It was mostly active for around three years, though it still exists, and had around 30 members, most of them white men; bright young things with promising careers in the media, advertising and so on.

What did they talk about? According to podcaster Henry Michel, who spoke to Libération for the first piece on the topic, “It was a place for the people who then were Twitter’s biggest talents. [We made] jokes, mostly ones we couldn’t tell publicly. It was brilliant, it was stupid, we were observing these characters from Twitter, we shared links, pictures, we mocked people. It’s where I had the most fun at the time.”

Quotes from other members of the LdL largely echoed this sentiment; it was a bunch of friends in a Facebook group, like so many others. The one difference, as explained by glad, was that people were “fascinated” by them as they were the “bad boys of Twitter”.

Some remember it differently.

Feminist Daria Marx, for example, published a blog post on Sunday explaining how she had been the target of relentless harassment from LdL. Death threats, rape threats, threats to dox her, her phone number posted on multiple public websites, pictures of her face photo-shopped onto pornographic pictures then posted online... And then the cherry on the cake.

Due to mental health issues, Marx could no longer take public transport. She started an online fundraiser to try and buy a scooter, which she posted on Twitter. The members of LdL found it and posted an online advert selling a scooter with her details, leading to dozens of earnest enquiries addressed to “Mrs. Fat”, the nickname they’d given her. The attacks were relentless; she cried and stopped sleeping, and on the rare times she could fall asleep would wake up in the middle of the night to check if she’d received other abusive messages.

Then there was Matthias Jambon-Puillet. A member of LdL had tried to hit on a female friend of his and failed, then seemingly concluded that the pair were going out. Jambon-Puillet was followed by several LdL accounts the next day; when he told his friends about it, they warned him that he should “buckle up”.

They were right. It started with some regular mean tweets, and someone posting sexist and abusive comments on the blogs of his female friends under his name. It escalated after that; at the time, Jambon-Puillet had a personal blog where he wrote about his “anxieties and neuroses”.

A LdL member recorded himself doing a dramatic reading of one of these blog posts, with violins playing in the background, and posted the Soundcloud link on Twitter. This turned into a contest and over twenty recordings were posted online, with one designated the winner of the competition. The whole bullying campaign lasted for several months; by the end, he found it nearly impossible to focus on his work.

He tried to fight back, and posted the address of one of the LdL members online; it made things worse. Graphic pictures of him giving a blowjob were photoshopped and sent to children as young as 12, with the message “hey, I’m [his @ handle], I love sucking dick, you interested?” The message was copy and pasted so many times that he got hundreds of replies from horrified teenagers.

Other victims include then-blogger Martin Médus, whose Jewish mother had recently died and whose selfies were photoshopped with a giant swastika “tattoo” on his chest. Science writer Florence Porcel was also targeted, as a member of LdL pretended to be a very senior editor at a TV channel and gave her a call offering her a job then posted the recording online.

For some, the trolling was both online and offline; Capucine Piot was in her early twenties when she joined media circles in Paris, and was one of the many people harassed on Twitter by LdL. At the same time, she unwittingly dated one of them for a short while; he told her afterwards that he had HIV and might have passed it onto her. Another lie, obviously.

This is what made the harassment campaigns of La Ligue du Lol more perverse; most of their victims would have known them in person, or at the very least had mutual friends with them, or spent time in the same bars and cafés. The Paris media scene is small, and the one of journalists in their twenties and early thirties mostly working in online media is even smaller. It would have been impossible to avoid them. (I have never lived in Paris or written for French publications, yet still know several LdL members, either online or off.)

It is unclear how many people were aware of the existence of the group; while the members say it was never a secret, some seemed vaguely aware of the fact that some group existed, and most could see that the online attacks were obviously coordinated. The number of victims of La Ligue Du Lol is also not certain, but it currently looks like it is in the dozens, with a heavy focus on women, especially feminists and women of colour, as well as gay and bisexual men.

In any case, they got away with it for a long time. When television presenter Daphné Bürki complained to her then co-worker Vincent Glad that she kept receiving abusive messages and death threats on Twitter, he told her not to press charges as getting trolled is just what happens. That at least part of the trolling was done by his friends was, of course, not mentioned.

This was in 2012, and not long before the targeted trolling from the group started to die down; as with everything else, it would be impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when LdL grew tired of their harassment campaigns, but it appears to have been at some point in 2013.

This would be understandable; by that point, they were getting busier.

*****

Who were, or are la Ligue du Lol? Several lists have been circulating online since Friday, with anything from just over 25 to just under 35 names. Some haven’t been confirmed and others are only rumours, but the ones we know about for certain are telling.

There are, among others: Alexandre Hervaud, senior editor at newspaper Libération; David Doucet, editor-in-chief of music magazine Les Inrocks; Christophe Carron, editor-in-chief of the French version of Slate; Stephen des Aulnois, founder and editor-in-chief of porn culture website Le Tag Parfait; Clément Poursain, video director of website Topito.

In short: they aren’t nobodies. What they did wouldn’t have been any less bad had they not managed to get glittering media careers, but it is undeniably jarring that they managed to reach such heights while behaving so poorly.

It is also hard to miss the fact that most of them ended up at young, left-leaning publications; several victims of LdL bitterly pointed out the irony of having to pitch stories on feminism and LGBT issues to editors who used to harass people for talking about such things.

This might not be the case for much longer. Things have been moving fast but at time of writing, Glad, Hervaud, des Aulnois and Doucet have been suspended from or resigned their jobs; so have a number of other LdL members. They almost certainly won’t be the last.

After all, they didn’t quite help themselves with the initial apologies. “[The allegations] are partly true, some people might have genuinely felt harassed”, Glad initially said. “But there’s also some fantasy here; we’ve been ascribed all the miseries of the internet.”

Hervaud, meanwhile, originally tweeted on Friday: “To those who felt targeted here or elsewhere over the past 11 years by one or several of my sneering quips, I can’t offer much more than a sincere, ‘I’m sorry, it really wasn’t clever, and it won’t happen again’. And to those merrily celebrating out of bitter revenge while thinking ‘phew, those pricks deserved it, now let’s go clean up our own not-so-clean private exchanges’, go fuck yourselves”. He added a wink emoji.

By Monday, the story had moved on and been covered by most French media outlets, and the actions of LdL publicly condemned by two government ministers. The apologies also got more sincere, and some of the victims who spoke out were apparently messaged privately by perpetrators wanting to personally make amends.

These gestures were mostly seen as too little. too late, and certainly won’t put an end to the scandal. La Ligue du Lol made the front page of Libération on Tuesday; new allegations keep swirling publicly.

Privately, there are talks of LdL members continuing to be bullies on and offline after 2013, covering for each other when they got in trouble for it at work, and generally still operating as a closed group hostile to women. Maybe more revelations will come out; maybe not.

In any case, Pandora’s box has been opened. On Monday, it was revealed that three male journalists had been fired from Huffington Post France for being part of a Slack channel called “Radio Beer Football”, where around twenty straight men from the newsroom shared racist, sexist and homophobic content and information on their female colleagues, including ratings on their physical appearance and outfits.

similar story was published on the same day about VICE France, where two people were made to leave for being the most active members of a private gmail thread called “Townhall” where around ten men made sexist jokes and comments on women in the office.

These employees had then fought back by hitting out against the behaviour of VICE management in a Libération piece. One of the bylines? Alexandre Hervaud.

*****

It is hard to overstate how ground-breaking the past few days have been for the media in France; the chain of events started by the Ligue Du Lol revelations is set to have repercussions far beyond the careers of the men in that Facebook group.

Already, the discussion has turned to the toxic culture in journalism schools, which are particularly important in France as it is nearly impossible to get a media job without a masters degree from one of them.

Blog editor Nassira El-Moaddem has spoken up about the bullying she faced at the ESJ Lille, where among other things, two fellow students called her pretending to be a senior journalist offering her a job; the pair, Martin Weill and Hugo Clément, are now both successful and well-established.

Others have come out with stories about other journalism schools, and other instances of harassment and intimidation, and they all sound the same. They are stories of white male journalists ruining the lives and careers of those who do not look or sound like them, then nodding solemnly when discussions are had about the lack of diversity in the media.

They are stories about power, those who wield it, and how they decide to use it. Stories of “bad boys” having “the most fun” – and to hell with anyone who gets hurt along the way.

Marie le Conte is a freelance journalist.