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Facebook Cracks Down On 30,000 Fake Accounts In France


After the U.S. presidential election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had dismissed the idea that his company had provided a platform for the spread of false information and conspiracy theories.

But now Facebook is working with authorities in 14 countries to stop the spread of fake news. We're joined by NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris to hear how this is playing out in France. And, Eleanor, is there a concern that fake news could influence the French election on Sunday?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Absolutely, yes. You know, there are alternative news sites and media of every ilk here operating. And some candidates have already been complaining about it. Emmanuel Macron, who is a frontrunner with far-right leader Marine Le Pen, says he's being targeted by conspiracy theories about his private life, also about his finances that because he's a former investment banker, he's hiding millions.

He actually had to go on the radio today and dispel rumors and talk about exactly where his money came from and, you know, where it went. And so a lot of information that may be false information is - seems to support anti-immigration stances of Marine Le Pen, you know, videos showing migrants attacking a nurse in a hospital.

Only it turned out this video was in a Russian hospital several months ago, even though it says a French hospital today. So there's a lot of conspiracy theories swirling also around the pro-Russian sites. There's fears that Russia will influence this election. And French President Francois Hollande publicly warned Russia not to interfere in the French election.

SIEGEL: What are the sources typically of the fake news? Does it come from Russia?

BEARDSLEY: Well, some of it does. Russia Today and Sputnik have been cited as perpetrators of conspiracy theories. And there are a lot of independent websites. Many are linked to far-right causes. And then Facebook because people share videos, people share news stories. And it looks like it's coming from a good friend so you can trust it. And so this is how things spread. And that's what Facebook wants to stop.

SIEGEL: So what is Facebook doing to stop it?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Facebook has developed an algorithm to detect accounts that are not linked to a person and a specific identity. So they're finding accounts that are just resending out masses of information, you know, spam. And that's what they're shutting down.

They have shut down 30,000 false accounts in France. But there's actually no human involvement in this, Robert, it's just an algorithm that detects accounts that are sending out masses amount of the same information.

SIEGEL: Now, fake news is not something new in French politics, is it?

BEARDSLEY: No, Robert, it absolutely isn't. I spoke with the editorial director of newspaper Le Monde. And she said fake news has been around for a long time, identified with the far-right. She said after the terrorist attacks in 2015, there were a lot of conspiracy theories. And here's what Sylvie Kaufman told me.

SYLVIE KAUFMAN: This kind of inflammatory false discourse and manipulated facts has been familiar for some time but we didn't have social networks, we didn't have the Internet. And so the amplification was not so large.

So it was an issue but it was not such a big issue. And also, I would say the authority, the moral authority of mainstream media like Le Monde was bigger.

BEARDSLEY: Kaufman says we're in a very different media environment. They're taking it seriously. Le Monde has a whole team now dedicated to debunking fake news. And they have online software that readers can use to verify sources.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Eleanor, thanks.

BEARDSLEY: You're welcome, Robert.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.