In French Elections, Alt-Right Messages and Memes Don’t Translate


Their efforts have fallen flat in France, with memes often written in English and extremist photos and images that do not resonate with the French electorate. American-style fake news and other digital misinformation have also failed to gain traction in France, where its own domestic issues and ways of campaigning still dominate.

The muted response in France could portend a similar response by voters in Britain and Germany when they head to the polls later this year in their own national elections.

“There has been an effort to spread fake news, but not to the same extent as we what saw in the U.S. campaign,” said Tommaso Venturini, a researcher at the médialab of Sciences Po Paris. “So far, it’s hard to see any evidence of the impact of fake news on the potential outcome.”

While international activists have found it difficult to break into the French political discourse, local campaigners, often from the country’s own far right, have had more success.

Ms. Le Pen’s social media team has fought a guerrilla-style war to spread its message online, including a dedicated group that shares videos and photos online that attack her political foes. A loose network of Facebook and Twitter users has similarly backed her campaign while disparaging Emmanuel Macron, Ms. Le Pen’s opponent and the front-runner to be France’s next president. Many of these social media messages have been shared by the supporters of more traditional politicians, including those of François Fillon, a right-wing candidate who finished third in last month’s first-round election.

While muted, American-style fake news has also made an appearance.

Ahead of last month’s vote, for instance, a fake news site masquerading as Le Soir, a Belgian newspaper, tried to spread rumors that Saudi Arabia was financing Mr. Macron’s campaign. Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a niece of Ms. Le Pen, posted the piece on Twitter before quickly removing the link after local media outlets debunked the claim.

Still, for many in France, such outright fake news stories have been met merely with Gallic shrugs. And the digital tactics of international campaigners have been even less effective.

In part, that is because alt-right activists from the United States and beyond have copied the movement’s American extremist images and language without tweaking them to entice the French electorate.

After the anonymous internet user called on others on 4Chan, an online message board favored by the alt-right, to start a “Total Meme War” to help Ms. Le Pen, he warned against mimicking American-style attacks. Yet international supporters repeatedly used Pepe the Frog, a cartoon tied to anti-Semitism and racism that has become an unofficial mascot of the alt-right movement. Many did so without realizing the amphibian is often used as a slur against French people.

In the last two weeks, far-right activists have created multiple memes attacking Mr. Macron — complete with captions and hashtags written in English. Ahead of this weekend’s election, some of these images on Facebook and Twitter portrayed Mr. Macron as a 21st century equivalent to Marie Antoinette, the out-of-touch last queen of France, while others linked him with false allegations of an extramarital affair.

But such moves have barely registered with French-speaking Twitter users, particularly local nationalists who already bristle at English overtaking French as the world’s most popular language. Almost two-thirds of Twitter messages using the hashtag MFGA — or Make France Great Again — have originated from the United States, according to David Chavalarias, a French academic, who created a digital tool to analyze more than 80 million Twitter messages about the French election.

“Tweets written in English don’t have much impact,” said Mr. Chavalarias, who conducted the social media analysis for The Times. “But if they are posted with photos, then that can have more of an impact.”

The online campaigns have also failed to go viral because they have not been picked up by larger media outlets, a fundamental part of the playbook in spreading these messages in the United States.

American news organizations like Breitbart News, the far-right media outlet that supported Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign and whose executive chairman, Stephen K. Bannon, is now a senior White House official, helped to share messages with a wider audience in the United States. But in France, no outlet has similarly embraced the international alt-right during the recent election.

“These trolls are trying to make a difference globally,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at the Mercer University who has studied the rise of the far right online in the United States. “But their inability to do so shows how limited of an impact they are actually having.”

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