French ‘gilets jaunes’ protests have stoked ‘fake news’ surge, says study

French ‘gilets jaunes’ protests have stoked ‘fake news’ surge, says study

The gilets jaunes anti-government protests in France have caused a surge in “fake news” on Facebook, according to a study of social media activity during the demonstrations.

During five months of protests that have rocked Emmanuel Macron’s government, false pieces of information were viewed an estimated 105m times on Facebook alone, and more than 4m were shared, said online activist group Avaaz in a report published on Tuesday.

The research analysed social media posts between November and March, focusing on Facebook posts because the company has been the dominant online platform used by the movement. There are just over 35m monthly active users of Facebook in France, Avaaz said. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The use of Facebook has played a central role in galvanising protesters and organising meetings of the gilets jaunes, or Yellow Vests, named after the high visibility jacket that motorists are obliged to carry in their vehicles. The movement began as an online petition against fuel tax rises last summer and morphed into a wide-ranging protest against taxes, declining living standards and President Macron himself.

One of the early self-professed leaders of the gilets jaunes movement, a truck driver called Eric Drouet from the Seine-et-Marne region east of the capital, created a Facebook site on November 17 last year calling for a national blockade against rising fuel prices. The petition ballooned to more than 1m signatures and on the same day almost 300,000 people blocked road junctions, toll booths and fuel depots across France.

Avaaz said it had looked at the 100 most circulated false news stories among the gilets jaunes, which it says were fact-checked by French or international media. Research was carried out by a team of investigative reporters, researchers and data analysts.

The report said that Russian state media, RT France, played an active role in disseminating news of the gilets jaunes protests, which is likely to renew concerns about Russian influence. During the French presidential election campaign, Mr Macron accused Russia and its state-owned media of using hacking and fake news to interfere in the race. The Russian broadcasters denied the claims at the time.

Avaaz’s research showed that of the 500 top YouTube results for videos relating to the gilets jaunes movement, the Russian state media was the most viewed channel. It accumulated more than twice as many views as French publications Le Monde, L’Obs, Le Huffington Post, Le Figaro and France 24 broadcaster combined.

“It shows clearly that Facebook and other platforms’ responses to disinformation in Europe are ineffective and pose a serious threat to healthy public discourse and democratic stability, especially in light of upcoming EU elections in May,” the report said.

The gilets jaunes have demonstrated across France for the past 17 consecutive weekends but turnout has waned in the face of violence.

In December, during the peak of the protests, Mr Macron responded with a package of economic measures and launched a nationwide campaign in which he has embarked on two months of public meetings around the country for citizens to air their views.

Following a turnout of 28,600 gilets jaunes across France last Saturday — the weakest number since the beginning of the movement — activists are trying to garner new momentum for a fresh round of protests this weekend that are timed to coincide with the end of Mr Macron’s nationwide tour.

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