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. [Continue reading…]