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France’s Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs organized a media tour for the Armenian journalists. Armenian News-NEWS.am is grateful to the Embassy of France in Armenia and French Foreign Affairs Ministry for a chance to participate in a rich, interesting and informative program, and expresses special thanks to the representative of the department of public relations and media Helene Stein for the program and warm attitude.

Fake news and manipulation of information

Fake news and manipulation of information was a theme of the media tour – a timely topic for France, Armenia and any other country, even world community on the whole, given the current situation over fake news.  I’d just make a reservation, the question is quite delicate - although we often say that the information provided by the media must be objective, in my personal opinion, absolute objectivity cannot exist because every journalist is first and foremost a person with his own thinking. But we will talk about deliberately provided false information. The primary source of the fake was the Internet, and to this day it still accounts for most of the false information. Sometimes media is exposed to the dissemination of low-quality information for a variety of reasons - from political and economic interests to the usual negligence. Realizing the scale of the possible threat, France began to take comprehensive measures and kindly shared their experience with us.

One of the common tools used by the officials in different countries is to reject his own works.

“I have never said this,” the officials says and journalists start searching to find his quote.

In some cases the media outlet has relation to an official and deletes the article, and it is too hard to prove anything.  Tristan Mendes France, a professor of school of informatics and communications  CELSA, said a collection of websites that keep copies of published articles and videos, as well as publications in social networks from open pages can help journalists to solve this problem.

French experts have launched new technologies to explore the formation of public opinion and astroturfing, as well as fake news and the manipulation of information. Director of the Institute for Complex Systems (ISC), Head of the Research Department of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Director of the Center for Analysis and Social Mathematics David Chavalarias talked about efforts in this direction during a meeting with Armenia’s journalists visiting the French National Assembly during a media tour organized by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The expert brought the case of dissemination of information on an attack on a woman as an example of astroturfing. The incident was presented in light of religion, and a discussion on the incident reached the national level in a matter of days. However, a study showed that a certain group had organized the discussion to form public opinion.

The politiscope technology, that is, colorful dot display of activities on Facebook, was created six months before the past presidential elections for a more detailed study of mechanisms. Several thousands of “respondents” from the political environment were selected as research “material”. They followed comments and examined tens of millions of Tweets, and the colorful graphic image showed the array of the selected “respondents”.

The expert presented the “transformation” of Alan Giuseppe into Ali Giuseppe as the second example of manipulation of information.

Over the past three years, diagrams have shown the transition from relatively similar and clearly expressed sympathies towards political parties to a bipolar and later a multipolar system.

Interestingly, in the case of false information, this information is published by one group and spread by other users.

It turned out that the French expert had also addressed Armenia in his study. The diagram shows how many users discussed the events that took place in Armenia last year, yet the graph shows only the fact that the topic has been discussed, without its tone.

Attempt to find a legislative solution

In an attempt to find a legislative solution, French lawmakers have undertaken the initiative to pass a law on the fight against the dissemination of fake news and against manipulation with information.

Deputy of the La République en Marche Party Bruno Studer, who is a co-rapporteur for the law and head of the committee on culture and education, clarified that he had come up with the idea of the need to protect true information and hinder the spread of fake news when he remembered his job as a schoolchildren and how he used to provide coverage of different political processes unfolding in different parts of the world. The Deputy also stated that he was against the term “fake news” since this is a term that Americans use.

“This law isn’t against journalists. On the contrary, it protects true information and hinders the spread of fake news,” the lawmaker highlighted, recalling that there are two levels of freedom: freedom of speech and freedom of choice. The law implies a ban on ordered materials and advertisements during elections and a ban on the advertisement of a candidate or political party through social networks during elections.

Studer also noted that the issue of fake news is a subtle issue since French legislation had envisaged punishment for overtly fake news back in the 1980s. According to him, what is also very important is the discipline of media representatives and the discipline of trust between society and the media.

Judges have to determine whether information is false or not through a court decision that has to be adopted within 48 hours. “In practice, unfortunately, fake news attracting the public often spark more interest than the serious task of a journalist. It turns out that this is a unique “black market” of the media, and this law is targeted exactly at this sector,” Bruno Studer highlighted.

In this context, he also reminded about the role of social networks. “Social networks make money. In essence, when Facebook transfers information, Facebook chooses what you read, not you,” the lawmaker said with certainty.

It turns out that French journalists weren’t too excited about the initiative at first, but their attitudes gradually changed. The authors of and rapporteurs for the law are avoiding making definite judgments in favor of the law for the time being, but they have voiced hope that the law will be enforced in the upcoming elections to the European Parliament.

Investigative journalism and who is to blame for fake news?

Investigative journalists are one of the tools of public control in France. “Cash Investigation” show on the Premieres lignes channel is investigating major fraud schemes.

The two-hour long movie-investigation "My President on a Business Trip" was prepared by Premieres lignes TV channel for the Cash Investigation program, and appeared on France 24 TV channel in September, 2015. The report uncovers details of two trips of French presidents to Azerbaijan. The filmmakers, Laurent Richard, Elise Lucet  and others, have repeatedly called the regime of Ilham Aliyev a dictatorship and said that  “in the diplomatic correspondence of the US State Department” Ilham Aliyev is described as “the godfather who runs the country in the manner of Corleone”. The film was a reason for a landmark trial.

Mediapart website is also engaged in investigations. One of the founders of the website presented their work to the Armenian delegation. Francois Bonet has a tremendous experience in working for leading French newspapers and a very critical look at the situation in the domestic media.

“Independence of the French press is an idle talk. 98% of the media belongs to one or another magnate,” Bonet says. Mediapart has been recently searched by the police due to publications in support of the yellow vests. By the way, searches in the media in France have not been carried out for a very long time, unlike in Armenia...

Yellow vests

When leaving Mediapart office, we saw yellow vests who came to support the website. The protesters lit flares and chanted mottos calling for the leadership to resign.  The small action brought together a few participant and was peaceful. They expressed their solidarity and gratitude to Mediapart.

“We are very much concerned over searches in Mediapart office. We have not seen such things for around ten years,” Reporters Without Borders representatives say.

Speaking about the situation with freedom of the media in the world, Elodie Vialle, who is responsible for the office of journalism and technology, noted several concerns when presenting organization’s new report. First of all, this is physical and financial pressure, the threat of an Internet shutdown in the third world countries.

 “European companies are special equipment to the authoritarian regimes of these countries,” said Vialle. Fortunately, Armenia was not noticed in such behavior. Reporters Without Borders is also worried about the new law on combating terrorism, which allows for broad monitoring of citizens, including journalists. It is possible that this will also lead to an even greater concentration of media in the hands of entrepreneurs. True, even media belonging to tycoons try to be on guard of their interests, and they have internal mechanisms that prevent business interference, however, this does not always work.

Educating children                                                

Teaching children how to know what information is fake is now part of the curriculum for schools in France. This is what Director of the Media and Information Education Center (CLEMI) Serge Barbier told Armenia’s journalists visiting France within the framework of a media tour organized by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The CLEMI was established 35 years ago, meaning even back then, there was an awareness of the fact that the young generation needs to be taught how to differentiate between true and fake information published by the media. This problem became an important problem following the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

“Our goal is to shape schoolchildren’s critical thinking. After all, critical thinking is the guarantee of a healthy stance of citizens,” the Center’s director noted. The CLEMI is training teachers of different subjects since there is no instruction for a specific subject.

In addition, every year, French schools host media and information weeks during which mass media representatives meet and talk with schoolchildren. Since the program became mandatory just recently and educational reforms continue in this sector, not all schoolchildren had the opportunity to participate in the program. However, studies have shown that more than 60% of children and adolescents have acquired skills in reading news on the Internet with a critical approach.

Once again about Yellow vests 

In conversations with colleagues, the impression was that they believe the coverage in the foreign media over “yellow vests” is not true and is a peculiar example of information manipulation. The main complaints were addressed to RT television, since the correspondents of the channel, as a rule, are the primary sources of information and are actively interviewing “yellow vests” and embellish the truth.

“Look, their materials create the feeling that all Paris is covered by demonstrations, but this is not the case. The demonstrations are local in nature, and most of the capital lives a normal life,” said one of the colleagues. Indeed, the demonstrations are not widespread, as it was, for example, last spring in Armenia. However, it would be wrong to assert that the rest of Paris is not involved. On the eve of our departure from Paris, we had a chance to see that the demonstrations are not local in nature. We went to an important meeting, not having enough time for a long walk. At the bus stop, it turned out that the ground transportation works with interruptions, while the metro stations in the city center. It turned out there were clashes between the protesters and the police. For obvious reasons, the center of the French capital was cordoned off by the police.

Experts continue to find out who “yellow vests” are, who is behind them, who and why manipulates information. However, it is obvious that whoever it is, real-life discontent with real-life problems is being used. My fellow traveler in the plane, Patricia from Nice, who clearly did not belong to “yellow vests” movement, expressed quite categorical in her statement: “Macron is wrong!”.

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