Russia is already widely suspected of interfering with elections in the United States. Alongside hacks and email attacks, the Russian government used Facebook and Twitter to manipulate results. Now, the French government has opened an investigation accusing the Russians of a similar social media tactic across the country.
The French government says Russian actors manipulated Facebook and Twitter to create discontent that led to increased protests that are sweeping France. Gilets Jaunes “Yellow Vests” have been involved in riots around France, especially in Paris. It was originally thought the movement started as a spontaneous social response to a diesel tax imposed by President Emmanuel Macron.
Protestors claimed the tax would negatively impact poor French people and those in rural areas. Macron said the laws would combat climate change but was forced to back down on the tax. However, the social movement continued and has morphed into a wider protest and rioting over general economic injustice.
As usual, social media like Facebook and Twitter has been pivotal in allowing Gilets Jaunes to be organized. Groups appeared on Facebook across France, giving residents the ability to plan their demonstrations and collaborate.
What started as peaceful protests have quickly turned violent and French authorities have started to suspect an outside force influencing social media. Speaking to RTL radio, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed an investigation is underway to see if Russia or another third-party was involved.
“An investigation is now underway,” said Le Drian, according to Bloomberg. “I will not make comments before the investigation has brought conclusions.”
France's suspicions of Russian involvement are not baseless. The Alliance for Security Democracy is a US unit of the German Marshall Fund designed to monitor pro-Kremlin activity online. It says it tracked over 600 Twitter accounts pushing Kremlin views regarding the French political strife. Among the activity has been the promotion of the #gilesjaunes hashtag.
Macros is facing the biggest crisis in his time as president, with his popularity sinking. Despite this, many believe the protests have been influenced by outside sources and Facebook is once again at the center of the storm. Taking to Medium, French writer Frederic Filloux looked at “How Facebook Is Fueling The French Populist Rage.”
“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.”