Exaggeration, racism and xenophobia characterize disinformation on the demonstrations in France
An analysis of the EDMO fact-checking network. Organizations that contributed to this analysis: Pagella Politica/Facta news; AFP; France TV; Les Surligneurs; Maldita.
Repeated urban violence has occurred in several French cities following the death of Nahel, a 17-year-old who was shot by a police officer during a roadside check in Nanterre in June 2023. The riots have become the subject of much disinformation in several EU countries. Various stories – which have been proven false by organizations that are part of the EDMO fact-checking network – exploit the context of chaos caused by these demonstrations.
False information seems to be aimed at increasing the already high level of alarm among European citizens, often in line with the narratives of political organizations that want to convey racist and xenophobic messages.
Amplification of the protests
Impressive (but decontextualized) explosions, alleged release of wild animals (for example zebras, lions, rhinos), and rioters fleeing in vehicles stolen from the police are among the false stories used to amplify the scale of protests that were already very violent and destructive. The majority of disinformation narratives detected seem to be aimed at magnifying the disorder.
To this end, several fake stories have resurfaced old videos and photos, presenting them as related to the ongoing protests. One example is the video of a car depot fire that occurred in Australia in April, but which was shared with the caption “Antifa criminals and second and third generation Moroccan and African immigrants born in France burn down a parking lot with thousands of cars”. Another is that of an apartment building that burned down in the United Arab Emirates, but was re-shared with the caption “Macron takes social media off the air. Total censorship and prohibition of all reporting in France”. And there is also the video of the looting of a store of a well-known brand, but that dates back to 2020 and took place in the United States. A 2016 video of protesters attacking a police car was repurposed with messages such as “It’s the spoiled, subsidized mafia that hates the West, against law, reason and common sense” and “Europe under Islamic attack”.
The false information about the alleged oceanic crowd of protesters in the streets of Nanterre is also a significant false narrative. The footage this time was taken from a concert in Mexico, but the technique has been used in the past in connection with other protests, in France and in general in Europe. Portraying such a context (sometimes apocalyptic) makes it easier to spread other falsehoods, such as that a priest was assaulted in his church and a firefighter killed in the wake of the protests, when neither event was related to the riots. The priest was robbed outside the church while wearing civilian clothes, while the fireman’s death is still under investigation, but the Paris fire department said it was not linked to the protest and the French police prefecture said the causes were “unknown”.
To spectacularize the demonstrations and increase their perceived gravity, some false stories also used footage straight from movies and TV shows. In addition to the aforementioned ride in a stolen police van taken from the 2022 film Athena, one of the videos passed off as real depicts a car falling off a building and is taken from the 2017 film Fast and Furious 8. The footage, which has been linked to protests over Nahel’s death, is circulating in France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, and other EU countries.
Racism and xenophobia
In addition to exaggerating the ongoing protests, some false stories used the ethnic origin of Nahel and of many protesters to convey xenophobic and racist messages (as seen in the accompanying texts of many of the false stories already mentioned). Specifically, the disinformation focused on the 17-year-old’s allegedly dangerous behavior, using photos of a trap singer to support this representation. A decontextualized video was used to accuse him of driving recklessly, thus justifying the police’s actions. The young man was also accused of having attacked a supermarket in Nice with a gun, being part of an armed gang, robbing 78 people and setting fire to a car dealership, although he had committed none of these crimes and had no criminal record. Nahel was known to the authorities only for a charge of “refusal to obey,” for which he had not yet been tried.
In the depiction of the “protest immigrants” as dangerous, a very significant false story (spread in France, Italy, Spain and Austria) was that of the sniper stationed on a roof with a rifle ready to shoot on travelers. In fact, the video had been circulating since March 2022 and it is not clear whether the rifle is real or a toy, as well as the identity of the hooded man (presented as an “African terrorist”) is not known. In France, there was also a false letter in which a famous director allegedly attacked a famous black actor.
In addition, there are claims of a supposed political will to censor current events – “The media is not showing you these images” is the content of many messages on social networks – but there are also fake stories that are deliberately invented. Especially in France and Spain, a false document was circulated announcing restrictions on Internet use as of July 3rd. The content was completely fabricated and no authority had foreseen such a measure, but it was circulated with text such as “Welcome to the era of dictatorship and digital control”.
Political exploitation of the issue
These “news” stories, designed to incite anger and hatred against immigrants and alleged permissive immigration policies, are often accompanied by texts that suggest the failure of these programs and the institutions that have promoted them.
The nature of the false information and the way in which it is shared reveals a clear adherence to the rhetoric used by far-right organizations. It is not a coincidence that some false news has also been republished on the social profiles of politicians promoting extremist policies, especially on immigration. For example, Tom Van Grieken, president of the Belgian independentist party Vlaams Belang, wrote in a Facebok post that Nahel “was part of an armed gang, while the media say he was delivering pizzas”. And Paul Golding, leader of the far-right group Britain First, known for spreading false news, reshared a tweet by the chairman of Britain First, Ashlea Simon, showing a photo of the dead firefighter, putting it in relation with the protest, even if this has been excluded by the competent authorities.
In Italy, there was also a case of overlap with Russian propaganda: a false story claimed that US weapons from Ukraine were being used against French policemen, but it used a photo from 2012. More in general, many accounts spreading pro-Russian disinformation in the EU are using the riots in France, exaggerating them or using them as a pretext to spread well known disinformation, to push propaganda messages against the West and in support of Russia.
Enzo Panizio, journalist at Pagella Politica/Facta News and EDMO
Tommaso Canetta, deputy director of Pagella Politica/Facta News and coordinator of EDMO fact-checking activities
Photo: Flickr, Mario A.P.