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22nd Jan 2019

Russia-linked fake news floods French social media

  • Wi-Fi zone outside Pompidou centre in France (Photo: Alessio Milan)

Almost one in four of the internet links shared by French users of social media in the run-up to elections were related to fake news, much of which favoured anti-EU candidates and showed traces of Russian influence, according to a new study.

The survey, by a UK-based firm, Bakamo, published on Wednesday (19 April), looked at 800 websites and almost 8 million links shared between 1 November and 4 April.

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Of the links, 19.2 percent related to media that did not “adhere to journalistic standards” and that expressed “radical opinions … to craft a disruptive narrative” in what the study called the “reframe” category.

A further 5 percent of links related to “narratives [that were] often mythical, almost theological in nature” or discussed “conspiracy theories” in what the study called the “alternative” section.

The sources shared in these categories favoured anti-EU candidates both on the far right and the far left: Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Francois Asselineau, and Philippe Poutou.

They also favoured Francois Fillon, a centre-right candidate who is friendly toward Russia.

Bakamo’s research found that one in five sources in the reframe section were influenced by Russian state media known for spreading anti-EU disinformation, such as RT or Sputnik, and that one out of two sources in the alternative section had Russian roots.

“The analysis only identified foreign influence connected with Russia. No other foreign source of influence was detected”, Bakamo said.

The study said that “established sources of political news” were “still driving public discourse” and were “being shared in greater proportion than all other non-traditional media sources”.

They also noted that while the far-left candidate Melenchon’s campaign team often shared bogus material, Le Pen’s team mostly propagated its own content on sites such as Twitter or Facebook.

But it added that social media users in the reframe category were “very prolific” and “very engaged”, sharing links almost twice as many times as those who followed mainstream sources.

Pierre Haski, a French journalist who took part in the research, noted that there was another “worrying trend as election day nears”.

He said there was a “growing gap among citizens” based on “news reliability and respect for professional and ethical [journalistic] rules” rather than on political affiliation.

The gap meant that people increasingly did not agree on basic facts as opposed to political opinions and that those who no longer trusted traditional media were impervious to debunking efforts, such as Les Decodeurs, a group of fact-checkers working with Le Monde, a French newspaper of record.

Bakamo’s study said the main political themes in the reframe category were those that championed French identity and attacked Islam.

Minor themes also attacked globalisation, big corporations, and US or EU “imperialism”.

It said the influence of Russian sources was the strongest in the French identity, anti-Islam, and anti-globalisation areas, as well as in the areas of “confusion” and “conspiratorial/anti-system” sources shared in the alternative segment.

A French translation of this article may be found here.

A German translation of this article may be found here.

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