Reports on child abductions spreading on social media lead to the attack of Roma communities in France in March 2019. Following these, the reports and rumours proved to be unfounded and the police and city authorities in Paris warned against sharing false information and inciting to violence.
Fake news where Roma men are involved in kidnapping children in a van and on forced prostitutions or illegal organ trafficking circulated online for a few weeks up to the event of March 23th, generating fear and revolt. These were spread on WhatsApp, Facebook, Snapshot and the details, such as the colour of the van, the nationality of men, or the region were different from case to case. The online rumours were at times also followed by video footage and images of “suspicious “ Roma van drivers.
Anti-gypsism took a different dimension when hate speech moved from social media to the actual real world. Roma communities in France were attacked in the neighbouring Clichy-sous-Bois and Bobigny areas northeast of central Paris on the night of March 23th with rocks, baseball bats and knives. 50 persons were involved in these, 20 individuals were arrested and two policemen were injured. Following this, Roma leaders asked for protection by the French police. After this event, Roma communities in France continue to live in terror, vigilance and fear. Between March 25th and April 9th, 25 attacks against Roma people were recorded in France, showing that the March event is, unfortunately, not an isolated or marginal one.
These are not the first attacks against the Roma in France. The novelty here relies in the strong organisation of the aggressors, mostly from less privileged and/or migrant backgrounds. This event occurred following other recent violent acts targeting the Jewish or the Muslim community and is a reminder of the recent nationalist turn in French society.
Anti-gypsism has a long and global history and cannot be reduced to the French context. The stereotype of Roma presented as thieves and child abuserers goes back to medieval ages. There are contemporary attempts to blame them as responsible for various problems which are in fact tied to much wider contexts as social challenges triggered by the economic crisis, increased social insecurity, the decrease of trust in representative democracy and in traditional media. While the intensification of racism in times of social insecurity is not a new phenomenon, the use of social media has contributed to making the already existing anti-Roma sentiments and the racist discourse viral.
It has become increasingly hard to control and prevent hate speech on social media. The growing digitalisation should come with regulation of the online presence, harmonization of national legislations combating hate speech, harsher punishments for companies and platforms that share these and an increased monitoring of fake news needs to take place. The recent debates around the anti-hate legislation in France are generating frustration and resentment that are being shown online, where people feel that they can express freely and sometimes anonymously their fears. Unfortunately, the case of Italy also shows us that fake news about Roma has the potential to reinforce negative stereotypes and discrimination.
This is the reason why non-formal education has to play a more important role in the attempts to prevent radicalisation and racism by giving the citizens coming from different ethnicities and backgrounds the possibility to meet, cooperate and break stereotypes. Most importantly, improving the living and housing conditions of the Roma in France is essential, as they continue to face discrimination, forced evacuations and limited access to education, housing, working and cultural opportunities. Some analysts assess that these difficult conditions are a method used by authorities to discourage the Roma to install in France. Easening their access to social rights would lead to a better integration in the French society and would prevent their ghettoization. Lastly, local, national and European political, civic and media actors should cooperate to draft a strategy addressing anti-Roma discourse.
The case of anti-Roma-attacks should serve as a reminder of how easy it is to make the step from racial comments to physical abuse and violence. Daily racism, images and stories spreading on social media, stereotypes and even racist jokes are never completely innocent since they legitimize and perpetuate ethnic hatred. We all need to make efforts towards ending this now!