The French government announced it is investigating the possibility that Russia manipulated social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter to foment discord that has inspired growing protests across the country.
The Gilets Jaunes or “yellow vests,” appeared at first to be largely a spontaneous social movement of protestors angry about an impending tax on diesel that is aimed at fighting climate change. The original complaint that this fell disproportionately on the backs of poor and rural residents has evolved into widespread anger over economic injustice. This movement has now engulfed President Emmanuel Macron’s government in its greatest crisis since he was elected 18 months ago.
It was clear from the start that Facebook played a critical role in propelling the movement forward as Facebook groups sprang up across the country, allowing local residents to organize and plan demonstrations. But there had been growing suspicion in recent weeks, particularly as the protests turned more violent, that outside groups may be using social media to manipulate residents — as happened with the Brexit vote and the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
On Sunday, during an interview with RTL radio in France, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said an investigation has been launched into possible manipulation by Russia or others.
“An investigation is now underway,” said Le Drian, according to Bloomberg. “I will not make comments before the investigation has brought conclusions.”
The Bloomberg story notes that the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a unit of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. that monitors pro-Kremlin activity, has been tracking about 600 Twitter accounts that promote Kremlin views and that have recently been targeting France by promoting the #giletsjaunes hashtag. The Alliance says #giletsjaunes conversations on these Twitter channels has surged past those about Brexit and U.S. politics.
In many cases, these accounts, led in part by such Russian-controlled media outlets as Sputnik news and RT, have been reporting blatantly false stories, such as that French police are sympathizing with protestors and turning their back on the government. One such video that involved police removing their helmets went viral because it supposedly showed police standing in unity with protestors, something witnesses on hand say was not true.
French newspaper Le Monde reports that French security forces are examining “accounts opened two weeks ago that send a hundred messages a day.”
Meanwhile, French cybersecurity researcher Baptiste Robert has been capturing more than 250,000 tweets over the past week as he tracked the explosion of English-language messages with the #giletsjaunes hashtag.
The tweets with the most reach and influence are coming from the Twitter accounts of a Polish nationalist, a Turkish breaking news account, and a pro-Trump follower who is part of the QAnon conspiracy theorists, Robert found. “A lot of influential groups are trying to support the catastrophic nature of the demonstrations, the ‘civil war’, the police violence,” Robert told the Liberation newspaper.
The London Times reported on an analysis conducted by New Knowledge, a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm specializing in misinformation and founded in 2015 by former National Security Agency employees. Under the headline “Russian accounts seek to stir up racial tensions in France,” the story says New Knowledge has tracked 2,000 accounts that have shown “behavior patterns that reveal Russian control.”
While Macron’s popularity has plunged in recent months, many observers in France point to a video posted to Facebook by Jacline Mouraud, a 51-year-old resident of Brittany, as the catalyst in launching the Gilets Jaunes movement. Posted on October 18, the video went viral after calling out Macron for ignoring the tax’s impact on the poor:
Likewise, a Change.org petition protesting the gas tax posted by Priscillia Ludosky of La Seine-et-Marnaise exploded and has since received more than 1.1 million signatures. No one disputes that these were from real people motivated by genuine economic frustration.
Countless Facebook groups have sprung up since word of the first protests began to spread a month ago. Whatever part third parties play, the role of social media has led to a growing debate in France about whether services such as Facebook and Twitter are fundamentally undermining the ability of democratic governments to function.
On Medium, French writer and researcher Frederic Filloux looked at “How Facebook Is Fueling The French Populist Rage.” Part of the concern is that the very structure of social networks makes protestors angrier and more emotional.
“Facebook is the most threatening weapon to democracies ever invented,” he wrote. “Over the last two years, the hijacking of the social network by populist groups or parties has tainted a dozen election processes across the world and brought to power a string of populists leaders that will have a profound effect on their countries.”
This week, across French social media an essay published by Olivier Costa, director of research at CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) at Sciences Po Bordeaux sparked further debate about the role of social networking and protest. “Can we still govern during the time of social networks?” he asked.
“State authorities and elected officials … face a mistrust of unprecedented magnitude, to which it is difficult to find an answer,” he wrote. “How to explain how we got there so fast? The first observation is that the revolt of the yellow vests is only one symptom of more than one deeper evil, the one that led to Brexit, the election of Viktor Orban, Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, and Jair Bolsonaro and guarantees the irremovability of Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
In response to questions, last week a Facebook spokesperson declined to say whether the company was specifically looking at possible infiltration of third parties related to Gilets Jaunes Facebook groups. However, in a statement the spokesperson said: “False news has no place on Facebook, and we have doubled down on our efforts to prevent the spread of false information on our platform and to educate people on how to identify and signal this type of content. We also have robust partnerships with French fact-checking organizations to tackle misinformation by verifying information shared on our platform.”