“Plus ca change…”
A little over a week ago, on October 11, a young woman in France sat down in front of her video camera and earnestly recounted the story of her narrow escape from a sex trafficking and possible organ trafficking gang operating from the train station in the city of Marseille. Against the backdrop of ominous music she tells her story of how a Roma woman with a baby approached her to ask for help buying baby formula. She left the station pulled along by the insistent Roma mother. They walked, she said, for about 15 minutes until they arrived at a steel reinforced door covered with graffiti. The Roma woman opened the door revealing a long dark hallway.
At this point, our TikTok influencer became afraid and ran back to the train station. As she explained in the video, ”you never know, maybe this was some kind of network with people lurking to catch victims”.
Back at the station, the young woman approached a train employee and told him the story of her narrow escape. He confirmed, she says, that yes, she had narrowly escaped abduction which was indeed a serious problem.
It’s probably worth mentioning that @naturelacroix, who normally makes TikTok videos about makeup and personal stories that garner several thousand views on average, made the point that although the presumed kidnapper was a Roma, she would have told her story no matter their racial or ethnic identity—even if it had been a Black person. There was nothing racist about her story, she insisted.
Social media may not have understood that disclaimer. Her posts went instantly viral and had such a dramatic response that an entire ethnic group became the immediate target of violent threats to the point that the national police had to make a public statement in hopes of calming the mob. As of this writing her ‘Part I: How I was almost abducted’ video has received over 2.4 million views.
The story then spread to Twitter where messages began mixing elements of other kidnapping conspiracy fantasies. This included an omnipresent white van and mention of changing rooms where unfortunate victims are pulled through a hidden trapdoor and sold to a sex or organ trafficking network.
Police became aware of the mob forming and worried about the potential of actual violence against a particular community. The police issued a statement that the rumors were completely unfounded and were total disinformation. There were no confirmed cases like this one, the statement read, and never had been.
The band of kidnappers may be imaginary, but the violence engendered by such rumors is not. In 2008, three Roma were almost killed when a mob surrounded their car and set it on fire. An article from that time explains that the mob was motivated by similar stories of kidnapping:
“It’s a genuine psychosis which is affecting Marseille for the last few weeks. People are afraid, mothers don’t dare to send their children to school and emotions are heating up, to the point of setting off actual punitive expeditions targeting members of the Roma community” -translated from Marseille. Three Roma lynched, victims of a rumor.
This is a well documented phenomenon.
Between March 25 and April 9 [of 2019], 25 attacks against Roma people were recorded in France, with 22 between March 25 and 28 alone. The attacks followed a series of rumours spread on social media alleging that Roma people in a “white van” were abducting children and planned to rape them or sell their organs. –Why are Roma people being attacked in France?
These stories form a whole unfortunate genre. We could go back to the blood libel targeting Jews that dates from the middle ages, but here is a more recent one from 1969. This story has all the same elements as the current anti-Roma rumors, but it was aimed at Jewish clothing merchants who were suspected of having secret trap doors in their changing rooms. The story is the same, young women would be pulled through the trap doors, drugged, abducted and sold into sex slavery.
And there is always a common thread. The mob gathers around rumors that target a community of ‘others’ who are mysterious and different and can therefore easily and credibly be suspected of the purest evil.
Roma activists are demanding that these two TikTok videos be taken down. They are particularly concerned by the comments that accompany the videos—full of ethnic insults and threats of violence.
There is a new term being passed around on the social networks: stochastic terrorism. Stochastic terrorism is defined as “the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted.”
These two TikTok videos and the reaction they set off perfectly illustrate how enduring the impulse is to join in a mob at the thinnest and least credible cue—a few words is all it takes.
Censorship vs critical thinking
There is only a very small minority of people who would seriously make the case that speech is harmless and that there should never be limits. Generally, the strongest proponents of free speech recognize that speech is actually very powerful and can also be harmful.
It is instinctive to reach into the toolbox and pull out the techniques of censorship to prevent or repress speech of this sort. Beyond the ethical issues this raises, there is simply the practical one–this tactic doesn’t work. The words have been unleashed. At best, censorship makes the words and the message all the more intriguing.
However, speech itself is not literal violence, and this incident illustrates the point. The effects of speech depend on how they are received. In a case like this one, the harm that words inflict depends entirely on the ignorance and gullibility of the listener.
As a society don’t we have the responsibility to fight against speech of this sort with explanations, history and context?
Reflexively using the harm label for every instance of speech with which you don’t agree is like crying wolf. We need to retain clarity of thought so that when the real thing appears we know how to recognize it.
It is our responsibility as listeners to understand and think critically about what we hear and how we allow words to affect us. Above all, it is our responsibility as a society to value and teach the skills of critical thinking.
Part I: How I was almost abducted
Part II: How I was almost abducted
Matache, Margareta. “The Deficit of EU Democracies: A New Cycle of Violence Against Roma Population.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 2, 2014, pp. 325–48. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24518057. Accessed 22 Oct. 2022.
Marseille. Trois Roumains lynchés, victimes d’une rumeur
Why are Roma people being attacked in France?
6 Men Are Found Guilty of Planning an Attack Against Roma in France
Roma attacked in Paris after fake news reports
Rumors against Jews in Orléans, 1969 (English)
Updated on 10-24-2022 to show the number of views on TikTok the Part I video has received.