France might be losing its first big information war

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This article is short and serves just as an awareness notice for people new to online manipulation

#GiletsJaunes manipulation

Like many social movement nowadays, the “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) began online. The protests started as a peaceful demonstration against the increase of gas tax. And suddenly violence is rising…

Your average protester isn’t really average — or is it?

Let’s have a look at @Pascal66616113, with the infamous 8 digits that are often characteristic to bots. The account has been created in December 2018 and from the API we can notice his interface is configured in English (en). How peculiar, for what seems to be a French patriot! MMoreover,his activity is only during week days from Monday to Thursday and is just relaying anti-Macron pictures. At this point there’s no way to tell if this is a legit French yellow vest or just a fake profile being controlled from a remote location, but it sure does look like it.

In fact, there are plenty of these “throw away” accounts trying to polarize and incite violence throughout France, and the hard part is putting it all together. To which extent are we being manipulated here? What percentage of these accounts are true protesters?

Fake media accounts

Let’s focus at “Happening Now” (@1Happeningnow) that is falsely looking like a news media. The account is relatively fresh (created a month ago) with very few followers, doesn’t seem to be part of any real media corporation (no website associated with it) and, of course, the author is anonymous. It tries to depict a burning Paris like it’s on the point of no return for Macron (while, I can assure you, it’s only getting messy near the protests point but the rest of Paris is actually fine). What is also striking are the topics being covered here: France, Ukraine, russia, Afghanistan (most used hashtags: #Paris, #russia, #YellowVests, #Ukraine, #Macron). Again, one can question who is authoring these tweets, and for what purposes.

Looking at the activity distribution it looks like (at least) two people taking shifts from roughly 04:00 UTC to 20:00 UTC (I’d say one early morning shift and one afternoon/night shift, somewhere east).

Unusual activity behavior

And there are far more “small accounts” like this that can reach a wider audience through retweets and the subtle use of hashtags.

Fake events

We’ve already seen foreign agents organizing events to cause chaos from overseas. Everyone has the Arab springs in mind, Internet can and will overthrow a country — even the stable ones. Also let me remind you the russian organized 129 events on Facebook during the 2016 U.S. election campaign in order to interfere. It looks like the same thing could be happening here in France.

Suspicious events are popping up on Facebook, created by unknown parties that appear somewhat linked with foreign influence (see the thread above).

Mapping the communities

Building our dataset using Twarc we can then visualize the different communities with Gephi. Here is the result of a few hours of interactions on the #YellowVests hashtag:

Twitter #YellowVests influencers and communities

Data visualization is quite interesting to have a better picture of what is happening. What is distinctive here is that the top influencers aren’t part of any traditional media, but are some individual accounts.

There’s a weird mix of people in there, the first kind being the MAGA/WWG1WGA/QAnon group.

Trump MAGA supporters being the first influencers of #YellowVests on Twitter

Then you have the pro-Assad @PartisanGirl, and finally @RT_com. I’ll let the reader think about what all these accounts can have in common.

Fake news

These accounts that claim themselves “fighting for the truth” are actually spreading disinformation and fake news. Below is a good example when @buzzman888 tweeted a video about firefighters facing the police. But this video was taken somewhere between 2010 and 2013 — you can notice there is no single yellow vest to be seen in the video.

And the following comments in this tweet’s thread are bashing the “mainstream media” for not reporting on these events… that are actually past events totally unrelated to the current yellow vests movement.

Tough times ahead

Make your own opinion and fact check everything you read online.

In a world where a click is more valuable than the truth (gotta keep that pay-per-click model running), even French media are tempted to surrender to sensationalized stories popping up on the Internet. I’d like to see more people use their common sense during times like this. Conspiracy theories are going wild on social networks, and it is our duty to stop disinformation: verify information with tools like AFP’s

It’s sad to see France becoming another playground for ideologists spreading false information in order to excite people even more. Paris isn’t on fire, France is fine. But tough times ahead…

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