As a mother of 3 young adults who grew up with social media, this story provides the kind of anecdote that reinforces my worries about online forums. Since January of 2020, a French teen named Mila has received daily threats against her life as well as thousands of threats of rape and torture. Her crime? She made the mistake of insulting Islam on Instagram. As a result, she has had to leave her high school and at the age of 17 now lives with her family in hiding.
The Life of a Teen
In the early days of 2020, Mila’s life resembled that of many teenagers. She enjoyed going on her Instagram account, posting pictures of herself, and talking about her life with followers. With an eye for art, her selfies often featured elaborate hair and makeup. She discussed style and romantic interests, shared her homosexuality, and posted videos where she would sing. One day, in a live video session, a follower mentioned that North African people weren’t really her type. Mila replied saying, pareil pour moi, pas mon style (same for me, not my style). It was an off-the-cuff comment—unplanned, in response to an unanticipated remark from an online friend.
There were only a couple of dozen people watching Mila’s feed, but one young man was insulted by Mila’s words. He began deriding Mila and the female fan, insulting them both in the name of Allah. That video no longer exists so there isn’t a record of what was said but the interaction purportedly turned into an argument about Islam. Vexed, the young man turned to various social media forums where he denounced Mila, calling her a racist and Islamophobe among other more vicious insults.
An Irrevocable Slip
After receiving dozens of harassing messages, Mila went live again on Saturday, January 18, 2020. This time she released a scathing video. In it, Mila expressed her dislike of all religions but she made a point of denouncing Islam and calling it a religion of hate. Her delivery is profane and disrespectful. Keep in mind, however, that these are the words of a threatened 16-year old who was accustomed to the support and admiration of a few thousand followers. She posted the video on her story, expecting it to last for a period of 24 hours and then disappear, as the first video had.
This time, her performance was recorded and within hours it went viral, appearing not only on Instagram but also on Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook. A victim of doxing, Mila’s identity had been hacked. Her high school, phone number, birth date, and even her bank account number were circulating freely over the Webosphere, along with the offending video. Within hours, she and her family began receiving thousands of profane and/or threatening messages per day. The intensity of the violence and hatred expressed in these messages as well as the rapidity with which Mila’s story spread is hard to fathom.
An End to Normal Life
The day after the release of Mila’s second video, her school began receiving death threats. The director contacted Mila’s family. Together, they decided that to ensure Mila’s safety and the safety of her classmates, Mila should not appear on campus. She never entered her school again.
Thousands had participated in the cyber assault. Unable to prosecute all involved, the authorities began investigating the threats of violence and acts of cyber theft perpetrated by 4 of the original attackers. Mila was also placed under investigation for inciting racial hatred.
Before a week had passed, Mila’s story was everywhere. A prominent Muslim leader evoked a common French expression, saying qui sème le vent récolte la tempête (he who sews the wind, reaps a storm). The implication was that Mila should have known what she was getting into. Politicians on the far right, rushed to Mila’s defense, citing her right to free speech. While a few on the left, criticized Mila’s choice of words and insensitive remarks, they quickly acknowledged that Mila’s videos in no way justified the ultra-violent reactions they had provoked.
Adjusting to Extreme Threat
After a prolonged search for a new school, Mila’s parents eventually found a military boarding school that agreed to take her provided that the name of the institution remain secret. The threats died down and in August, Mila’s parents decided to send her to a two-week linguistics camp in Malta, more than 1,000 miles from home. Shortly after arriving, she was accosted by a young Algerian man who hurled insults and threatened to rape and murder her. Shaken and upset, she abandoned the rest of her stay.
Mila has learned to live with alternating waves of aggression and calm. She remains firm in her conviction that she has the right to express her dislike of Islam and religion in general. France is a fiercely secular nation. The constitution upholds the right to practice any religion and it’s illegal to insult someone based on their religious convictions. However, free speech laws allow anyone to criticize a religion, even if its practitioners are off-limits. Many French people are proud of the fact that France was the first country in the world to ban the crime of blasphemy, way back in 1791.
The Right to Free Speech
Mila maintains (and her online fingerprints confirm) that she never attacked Muslims personally and she never threatened to harm anyone. She has apologized to anyone she offended who practices their religion peacefully. However, after living in fear of being violently tortured and killed, often in the name of Allah, she has not pulled away from her staunch criticism of Islam. She feels abandoned by members of the extreme left who have at best remained silent with respect to her case and at worst have accused her of being a racist.
Despite the unbearable levels of menace, Mila unwaveringly defends her right to free speech. In January, she gave a long interview to Le Point, France’s version of Time or Newsweek. Below is a short excerpt that provides a sliver of insight into the pain she’s undergone.
“Moi, ça fait un an que j’ai perdu ma vie, que j’ai l’impression d’être morte tout en restant dans ce monde. Observer les autres continuer à vivre c’est vraiment extrêmement dûr—les voir sortir de chez eux, poser leurs pieds en dehors de leur voiture. Moi, il n’y a qu’en dehors de mon lit que je pose mes pieds. La privation de liberté, ça me fait beaucoup de mal. Je pleure beaucoup, pratiquement tous les jours en pensant à ça. Je reçois tous les jours des menaces de mort. Ça me fait mal. Ça me choque tellement que ça me rend malade. J’ai envie de ne pas trop y penser mais j’ai peur pour ma sécurité. Et comme une génération va être adulte, je ne serai plus trop en sécurité. C’est surtout ça qui me fait peur.“
“It’s been a year since I lost my life, since I’ve felt as if I were dead, all while staying in this world. Watching others continuing with their lives is really hard—seeing them leave their homes, placing their feet on the ground as they exit their cars. Me, I can only place my feet on the floor to exit my bed. Being deprived of freedom hurts a lot. I cry a lot, practically every day thinking about that. Every day, I receive death threats. That hurts. It upsets me to the point of making me ill. I want to not think about it too much but I’m afraid for my safety. And as a generation will become adults, I will no longer be very safe. That above all scares me.“
An Unimaginable Existence
Today, Mila and her family continue to live in hiding and under police protection. In the interview with Le Point, Mila said that the Coronavirus pandemic has been an odd source of comfort for her. It’s not as bad living clandestinely when you know that all of your friends are also somewhat confined to their homes. During a live chat, last December, Mila accidentally revealed the name of her boarding school. The school immediately came under threat and Mila could no longer attend. She is now enrolled in a third high school and plans to graduate next month.
A Dangerous Venue
What started as a teen’s attempt to entertain her peers on a Saturday afternoon erupted into a nationwide polemic nearly overnight. An estimated 35 million people saw Mila’s second video within a few months of it appearing on Instagram. Of course, this is an extreme example of what can go wrong when a casual comment has the potential of reaching most of the world. But it’s horrifying to think that an impulsive action by an adolescent, a phenomenon that is basically inevitable, could yield such disastrous consequences.
In this story, radical Muslim extremists were the perpetrators of the harassment. We see the same sort of backlash, however, from myriad fringes of society. The threats largely emanate from people with extreme political or religious viewpoints. The hatred and violence cannot be overstated. Yet, social media sites and law enforcement haven’t come close to figuring out how to alleviate such conduct.
We once sold Coca-Cola laced with cocaine. Smoking cigarettes was part of growing up for many a decade. More recently, our society has fallen victim to an epidemic of prescription opioid addictions. Eventually, as we learn more about the hazardous effects of such products, we either ban them, limit access to them, or mount a massive educational campaign to change people’s understanding of their ill effects. I expect that such will be the case with social media. Unfortunately, kids today are the unsuspecting guinea pigs for the studies that will assuredly prove that social media is a dangerous environment with many toxic and long-lasting side effects.