Thursday

21st Feb 2019

Investigation

Russia, the far right, and anti-Macron bots

  • Figures suggest that the Twitter following of Russia's RT and Sputnik is "unusually dedicated, and unusually active".

Thousand of automated social network accounts are being used to spread fake news attacking centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron ahead of the French presidential run-off on Sunday (7 May).

Fake news often originating on Russian news outlets such as RT and Sputnik has for weeks targeted Macron, who is opposed to Russia-backed far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

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Ben Nimmo, a researcher who investigated all posts mentioning or retweeting RT France and Sputnik France, found that some of the accounts spreading the fake news were openly pro-Russian, but most were "strongly French nationalist and opposed to Emmanuel Macron".

Nimmo, a senior fellow on information defence at the Washington-based Digital Forensic Research Lab, told EUobserver these accounts were also not united in their French political views. Some supported Le Pen, others supported Francois Asselineau, another anti-EU candidate who failed to make it to the run-off.

However, his research seems to confirm rumours on the use of Twitter bots during the election.

“A number of the most active amplifiers appeared to be heavily automated, tweeting hundreds of times a day, with 98 percent or more of their posts retweets,” he said.

Bots are accounts run by algorithms, with little or no intervention from a human user.

Nimmo and his colleagues concluded that the account was a bot if it provided no personal information about the user, tweeted more than 100 times a day and posted more than 85 percent retweets.

Sputnik France and RT France are more reliant than other news organisations on automated accounts. While the number of posts retweeting or mentioning the BBC World Twitter account represented a rate of of 1.5 tweets per user, tweets mentioning Sputnik and RT represented 4.7 and 4.8 tweets per user.

Trending topics

"These figures suggest that the Twitter following of RT and Sputnik is unusually dedicated, and unusually active," Nimmo's study noted.

“Potentially anyone can make a rumour go viral about a politician, but if you have access to a network of sympathizers or paid/volunteering trolls you can easily reach hundreds of thousands or even millions of people,” Dutch fake news expert Ruurd Oosterwoud told EUobserver.

But such influence does not always have the desired effect. According to Nimmo, automated accounts managed to create a lot of content in France and even influenced Twitter trending topics, but “only had a small impact” on the public debate.

The accounts did not manage to reach many people outside the circles of French far right.

Still, neither Nimmo nor Oosterwoud could determine who was behind the automated accounts.

It is easy to create bots or even bot networks, so it is “nearly impossible to prove who is behind it”, Oosterwoud said. He suggested placing more emphasis on identifying the origin of fake news.

Spoof stories

CrossCheck, a fact-checking alliance of French media that monitors the origin of fake news, found new sources after the first round of the election, on 23 April.

A bogus tale of the candidate planning to integrate Turkey into the EU was produced by French far right platform On aime la France (We love France).

It also found that several news that were circulated on social networks were in fact satirical articles that had not pretended to be true.

A story about Macron planning to suppress family allowances began as a joke on the satirical forum Flashinfo.

A story about Macron washing his hands after handshakes with workers too was linked to satirical content, in this case to the spoof website Le Gorafi. According to CrossCheck, this story was mainly distributed by French far right and supporters of Vladimir Putin.

“Even if news are proven as fake, these stories have a sufficient effect on social networks”, said Walid Salem, from Rue89Bordeaux, a CrossCheck member.

Meanwhile Russian outlets are continuing their anti-Macron coverage, leading the candidate to ban Sputnik and RT from campaign events last week.

“Banning media, however right it may feel, is not a solution,” noted Oosterwoud.

He said that focusing on fact checking and informing the public on traditional media's editorial choices are more efficient to counter fake news. US expert Nimmo added that educating the public on fake news and automated social media accounts would also have to be done.

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