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.
- Le Monde, L’affaire Mila expliquée
- Femme Actuelle, “J’aurais pu être brûlée à l’acide”
- Le Point, Mila, le grand entretien
- Sputnik France, L’adolescente Mila de nouveau menacée de mort et victime d’injures «au nom d’Allah»
- France Inter, L’affaire Mila ou la fatwa numérique
An important post as this just shows the nasty nature of some parts of the online community who would hound a child for an initially off the cuff remark agreeing with a friend 🙁
Yes. It’s more than disconcerting to think about the level of violent aggression that some people have buried inside of them. With time, I hope that Mila’s life will resemble something much closer to normal.
Agreed. The internet is a wonderful tool but it seems to bring out the basest traits in some who use its lack of personalness to vent their bile 🙁
You’re absolutely right. The Internet can be used for good or evil. Up until recently, new technologies were largely under the control of adults. In this case, children who are often unsupervised have unprecedented access.
Yes, we need to keep reminding folk that tolerance is a necessity not just a virtue!
Kudos to Mila for sticking to her guns and insisting on her right to free speech. If free speech means anything at all, it must include the right to criticize ideas and ideologies, and a religion is a form of ideology.
If people respond to a claim that their belief system is hateful and dangerous by barraging the person with an avalanche of vile threats, then all they’re doing is proving her point.
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
The recurring cowardice and hypocrisy of much of the left on this issue is maddening. Islamic extremism is just as much a far-right, misogynistic ideology as Christian fundamentalism is. All religions need to be held to the same standard. The accusation of racism is absurd since Islam isn’t a race and Muslims can be of any race. Most people in North Africa aren’t noticeably racially different from most people in southern Europe (there are just different traditional habits with clothing and facial hair).
I’m not sure, though, how much of the problem is really attributable to social media. Samuel Paty didn’t come to the bigots’ attention via social media any more than Charlie Hebdo did. Discouraging teenagers from using social media might reduce the likelihood of incidents like this (and have other benefits), but it’s fundamentally a religious-intolerance problem, which dates back to long before computers even existed.
I agree that religious intolerance is an underlying (and age-old) problem here. I’d argue that misogyny is perhaps an even greater enabler of the cowards that lie behind such attacks. Others, might point to homophobia playing a role. My point is that social media has weaponized vicious mentalities in new ways that we haven’t yet figured out how to deal with.
Yes, the reaction of some on the far left has been disappointing and I think pushes centrists away from liberal politics. In France, the far right has cleverly coined a new term, Islamo-gauchisme. They’re successfully using it to associate liberals with Islamic extremists. It’s not an accurate descriptor of anyone but the term is gaining acceptance so it is working as intended.
As always, thanks for your excellent commentary on the matter.
Social media has, by its scope, worsened an already existing societal problem, and—by its design—heightened an “us vs them” mentality. This is not a casual remark on my part; nor is it new to anyone who’s seen the docudrama “The Social Network.” I’ve written about this issue before and plan to do so again soon.
It is tragic that the self-righteousness of religious fundamentalism leads to threats and violence, but that scenario is repeatedly in evidence and has been throughout history.
Despite Mila’s bravery in refusing to back down, she clearly was not prepared for her life to be so upended. I do think that in this era of cyber bullying, and worse, parents would be wise to advise their children to think carefully about the photos and texts they’re considering throwing into the wild Internet morass. They must be aware that a casual remark made to a friend in person or over the phone is vastly different when it’s committed to the Internet.
I totally agree that kids need to be warned Annie. My kids were well aware of many of the dangers of social media before they started walking around with smart phones and snap chat accounts. We talked about it at home and it was also discussed at school in Social Studies, Homeroom, and Health classes. Nevertheless, there is only so much that parents and teachers can do.
When I was a teen, the same sort of efforts were made with respect to drug use, yet plenty of kids used drugs.
In the last year especially, social media has become the primary venue for kids’ social life. It’s unrealistic to expect that they’re going to continually censure themselves while chatting with friends online. I’d be willing to bet that most kids say they are very careful about the pictures they post and about what they type into chat windows. Yet, many of those kids will quickly add that they’ve shared things that they thoroughly regret.
I’m hoping that these sites will develop policies and technology that quickly shut down the harassers. Law enforcement also has a role to play. Eventually, we need to make these forums a much safer zone for people of all ages to circulate in.
Thank you for this post. Mila’s life has indeed been destroyed. And the cuplrits”? Free as birds.
You’re right that the vast majority are free as birds. I haven’t tracked down where the trials stand for those who have been charged with crimes. Perhaps you know more about that.
Maybe in 5 years? French justice is going down the drain. The last murderer alive of the Bataclan has still not been tried. 6 years after the facts.
A Dutchman was just caught at the Spanish border smuggling 28 pounds of cannabis in France. Since they could not find a Dutch interpreter (of course he was the only Dutchman who doesn’t speak English), he was released. Free as a bird. The article doesn’t say whether they gave hom back the 28 pounds of cannabis…
Do you happen to know why the one Bataclan attacker has not yet been tried? I know several of the trials concluded last fall.
That is funny to think of the Dutchman who didn’t speak English.
Several reasons: one, French justice is totally understaffed and under equipped. A trial typically take 5 years. Last years they tried a 25-year old affair. During confinement justice came to a halt, they had no computers for the magistrates to take home and do home office… two (I suspect) they might be afraid. Whenever we have had trials of terrorists in France, there have been terrorist attacks to pressure the gvt. So… they might very well be afraid.
Dutchman who doesn’t speak English? Total Bull. And they fell for it.
25 years is not justifiable. It stinks that all up and down the line, people associated with such cases are threatened.
Kudos to the Dutchman I guess.
There is a need to “reconstruct” France in all areas from top to bottom and back.
Admittedly, like so many other people, I have grown weary of general social media’s physical (and often identity) disconnect, through which the ugliest of comments can be and too often are made without consequence for the aggressor. What I find indispensable about social media in general, however, is that it has enabled far greater information freedom (for example, on corporate environmental degradation and destruction) than that allowed by what had been a rigidly gatekept news and information virtual monopoly held by the pre-2000 electronic and print mainstream news-media. If not for the widely accessible Facebook, I seriously doubt that Greta Thunberg’s pre-pandemic formidable climate change movement, for example, would’ve been able to regularly form on such a congruently colossal scale.
Though it may have been a couple decades late when it comes to countering climate change through multiple massive intercontinental demonstrations, I believe that progressive movements like environmentalism were made far more effective by the unprecedented informative and organizational abilities made widely available by no-fee social media platforms, notably Facebook.
(And, BTW, I’m saying all of this as someone whose own Facebook account was inexplicably “Disabled” two years ago, which still angers me.)
That’s true. When you can communicate to millions of people at a time, things can well or terribly wrong. Thanks for dropping by.
Such a sad tale. I like using social media, but I have noticed that if I express the mildest — not even a disagreement but — different viewpoint to someone with a large following, his followers (really his male followers) will keep telling me why I’m wrong over and over … until after a week or so I have made no response.
That is so maddening. I don’t mind people making their point but the idea that you are going to change someone’s mind by reiterating the same thing over and over is ignorant as well as beligerant.
Even in Asia, some people are bullied by remarks on social media and even ended their lives.
That’s so sad to hear. Bullying online is out of control in so many contexts. I truly hope this can change. Thanks for your comment.
I find social media issues very complex. It does harm, the story you highlighted here is a prime example of that and there’s also the addiction problem, but it seems like it’s also a path to social mobility for some and being able to connect to people around the world can help build empathy too.
Very true. Like every other technology, social media has its pros and cons. Thanks for your comment.