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Oxford study fears for “fake news” during French election

The Oxford Internet Institute found that the bulk of France’s junk traffic targeted Emmanuel Macron

A study conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) has revealed that junk or ‘fake news’ is playing a significant role in the run-up to French and German elections.

The Oxford Internet Institute is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet.

On its website, it states that they hope to tackle the “big questions” of society, as well as to “shape the development of our digital world for the public good”.

Their investigation of URLs shared on Twitter in the weeks leading up to the French election in particular also raised concerns about Russian involvement.

Although in France almost half of the links pointed to professional news content, 15 per cent of content circulated came from professional political content produced by the government and political parties and 20 per cent to other sources of political news and information.

Of this 20 percent, twelve percent of the links have been identified as known Russian sources, including Russia Today (RT). Around a quarter have been labeled as junk news, which does not come from Russian sources but from “other extremist, sensationalist sources including French extreme right wing websites”.

The OII found that the bulk of France’s junk traffic targeted Emmanuel Macron, but that “highly automated accounts” also circulated large amounts of traffic about Francois Fillon, a pro-Russian candidate, and occasionally about Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon.

It said that the run-up to German presidential elections in February “found Germans sharing four professionally produced news stories for every one piece of junk”. However, in both cases the OII concluded that French and German voters were sharing better quality news than US voters in the build-up to their election in November last year.

Clementine Desigaud, an MSc student at the OII who was involved in the study, told Cherwell: “I worked more particularly on the French memo. We found a modest amount of junk news shared on Twitter this week, and the amount coming from known Russian sources was even more modest.”

“However, the key takeaway is that French voters were sharing better quality news on Twitter than the US voters. For instance, in Michigan, in the days leading up to the US election, we found as much fake news as professional news shared on Twitter.

“German voters were also sharing better quality news on Twitter than the US voters. In Germany, the amount of URL pointing to known Russian sources is similar to France.

“So overall, it suggests that the German and French elections were less poisoned by fake news than the US election, and with a small amount of Russian content.”

Jake Smales, a third year French and Spanish student currently working in Rouen, said: “The amount of junk news that circulates and the impact that can have on the outcome of an election really does worry me.

“I’d like to think that most people can tell if an article or a Twitter account looks less credible, but I guess it is not so easy nowadays.

“What is reassuring, however, is that this French election hasn’t been tarnished by junk news and meddling from outside parties to the same extent as the US election, or so it seems.

“The French people I know have not been so concerned about this, although I cannot speak on behalf of everyone.”

In order to conduct the study, the OII collected one week of data from Twitter, in February for Germany and in March for France, using a list of hash tags referring to each presidential election.

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