Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment dominate misinformation around France violence

By: umme kulsum&
July 5 2023

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Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment dominate misinformation around France violence

Source: Nicolas Liponne / Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect

Riots erupted across France on June 27 hours after Nahel Merzouk, a teenager of Algerian descent, was fatally shot by a police officer at a traffic stop in Parisian suburb Nanterre. This unrest in the country has propelled misinformation on social media platforms with hashtags like #FranceOnFire, #FranceRiots, #FranceHasFallen gaining significant traction. 

The hashtag #FranceRiots has seen a spike on July 1, 2023, with over one million mentions. It should be noted that the trend began to decline gradually on July 4 before surging again on July 5.

A screenshot from Brandwatch which shows the use of the hashtag #FranceRiots since the protests broke out. 

Using Brandwatch, Logically Facts searched for the use of hashtags #FranceHasFallen and #FranceOnFire, and found that they also surged on July 3, 2023, with more than 150k mentions each.

While above numbers don’t just show how much misinformation has been shared on social media, these hashtags have been heavily used to peddle old, unverified, unrelated images and videos to push Islamophobic and anti-immigrant narratives online. 

Here's a quick look at some of these narratives and how Logically Facts has debunked them. 

Anti-immigrant sentiment 

Right-wing commentators and leaders have pushed narratives targeting immigrants in the country using old and unrelated videos in the light of this unrest. Paul Golding, leader of the British far-right party Britain First, was among the key individuals, who tweeted a video of a store being robbed with the caption, “Immigrant hordes loot a jewellery shop in France. Where's the army? Where's the strong government response? #FranceRiots #FranceHasFallen #FranceOnFire (sic).” 

However, it turns out that the video predates the riots and is from California, U.S.A and not France. The tweet was later deleted by Golding, but this robbing, looting, and arson narrative has catapulted on social media.

Another video shot in Portland in 2020, which showed a mob storming a Louis Vuitton store and looting it, was shared to claim that it was from Paris. 

Islamophobic narratives 

The unrest was also used as an opportunity to push Islamophobic narratives online. A video, a scene from the movie ‘Fast and the Furious 8,’ was shared to claim that rioters threw cars off a building. You can read our fact-check here.

Another clip showing a person in sniper gear, was shared to claim that a “Muslim rioter stole a rifle from a police van.” However, this video predates the riots, and we could find a version of it uploaded on Twitter in March 2022.

These narratives are also gaining momentum in India and the U.S. Several leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and their supporters have also blamed the Muslim population for the violence. See examples, here, here and here. We have also seen claims in the U.S. that are centered around Muslims targeting French authorities and other religious institutions. The linked tweet has around four million views.

A video of several cars on fire was also shared, with a claim that “rebels set them on fire in France.” But the video is actually from Australia and shows several cars that were destroyed after a fire broke out at an auction yard. A clip from an old fictional video, aimed at getting the European authorities to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, was shared with hashtags #FranceHasFallen pushing the same narrative. 

The following word cloud also shows several keywords that were used along with #FranceHasFallen propagating anti-Muslim sentiment. Use of ‘Islamists’ and ‘Imam of peace’ indicate certain narrative-building. In addition, the data shows the claim that the president of a refugee association called ‘Angels for Peace’ was assaulted by Muslims was shared widely using #FranceHasFallen. Logically Facts found no evidence or record of such an organization. Other narratives using these keywords included hyperbole that France is going to be the first in several European countries to become an “Islamic republic.”

A screenshot from Brandwatch showing a word cloud of keywords most used with #FranceHasFallen.

Misinformation around government action 

Following French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement that social media platforms played a “considerable role” in inciting violence, users alleged foul play and a concerted effort at downplaying the protests and its impact.

This circular, for instance, was shared to claim that the government has ordered an internet shutdown in the country. However, the French Embassy later clarified that the circular was fake. No such notice could be found on the government’s official websites either. 

There have also been claims that the French government is “restricting social media access to control the information that is coming out of France.” But several users have used unrelated videos to push this claim. For example: This video from UAE, which shows a building engulfed in fire, was shared to claim that “Muslim rioters” have done this and there is a complete “media shutdown.”

Current situation in France

While riots in France are reportedly subsiding, the protests have led to millions of Euros worth of damage to public transport in Paris, according to the BBC. Over 45,000 police personnel were deployed nationwide to control the situation. As per reports, almost 900 arrests were made on Thursday, 1,300 on Friday, 719 on Saturday, and 49 on Sunday by the French Police. Over 2,000 vehicles were torched, 200 officers injured, and 700 shops and businesses ransacked and looted. Justice Minister Eric Dupont-Moretti said 30 percent of the detainees were under 18.

On Tuesday, Macron met hundreds of French officials to explore "deeper reasons" for the country's plunge into riots. According to the reports, Macron proposed handing out immediate fines to the parents of children caught in vandalism or robberies during the meeting. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire also said the government could permit riot-affected firms to put off paying taxes and social security benefits while they rebuild.

The unrest erupted over concerns of police discrimination disproportionately impacting ethnic minorities once footage of the officer firing his gun at Merzouk despite not appearing in immediate danger was widely shared. The officer said he fired fearing that the teenager would run someone over. He is facing a formal investigation for voluntary homicide and has been placed in preliminary detention.

Merzouk’s family called for the violence to end with his grandmother accusing the rioters for using his death as an excuse. She urged those involved to stop destroying public property. 

Widespread violence in the country gained global attention, including condemnation of the violence that ensued; and support for local authorities that were specifically targeted. But the events that transpired were used as an opportunity to peddle misinformation and unverified narratives relying on old and unrelated imagery. 

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Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before