Misinformation regarding France’s COVID-19 “health passes” spread on Twitter

Far-right French political accounts alongside inauthentic

Misinformation regarding France’s COVID-19 “health passes” spread on Twitter

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Far-right French political accounts alongside inauthentic Twitter users promoted anti-vax and anti-health pass messages

A protester holds a sign reading “No to health pass” during a demonstration called by the “yellow vest” (gilets jaunes) movement against France’s restrictions, including a compulsory health pass, to fight the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Paris, France, July 31, 2021. (Source: REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier)

By Hans Hanley

After French President Emmanuel Macron announced the implementation of “health passes” to encourage COVID vaccination and help curb the spread of the delta variant, far-right and Eurosceptic parties took advantage of fears surrounding the vaccines to spread COVID misinformation, to promote antivax messages and protests, and to elevate their political positions. As associated protests raged across France and COVID cases spiked, several inauthentic accounts further amplified these antivax messages, illustrating the malign effects of the combination of fear and misinformation.

Since Macron’s July 12, 2021 announcement of vaccine health passes, various far-right French media organizations, political candidates, and inauthentic accounts have amplified anti-vaccination and anti-health-pass messages. The vast majority of all tweets with the hashtag #antivax from July 12 to July 19 came from France. On Saturday, July 17, 2021, over 100,000 people marched across France in protest against the implementation of health passes. While the protests were ostensibly organic, fear and misinformation surrounding the French health pass plan likely magnified the issue in the protesters’ eyes, as it was spread by French far-right and inauthentic accounts on Twitter.

Some politicians also took advantage of the moment to spread vaccine misinformation. In particular, Les Patriotes, an offshoot of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (formerly Front National) used the opportunity to push untested COVID-19 cures and announce its leader Florian Philippot’s candidacy for the French presidency. In part because of amplification through Les Patriotes and Philippot’s accounts, #antivax, #dicatureSanitaire, and #passdelahonte (“Shame pass”) soon trended on French Twitter, with hundreds of thousands of tweets referencing these hashtags.

Passe sanitaire: reaction to health passes

In a speech watched by over 22.4 million people on July 12, 2021, Macron announced the implementation of vaccine health passes, which would be accessible via QR code. Since their full implementation on August 1, the health passes have barred anyone who has not recently tested negative for COVID-19 or who has not been vaccinated from visiting a theater, cinema, sports venue, or festival with more than 50 people.

With the rise of the delta variant of COVID-19 in France, by mid-July the amount of new coronavirus cases had surged nearly 65 percent to almost 4,000 cases a day. Although 51 percent of people over the age of 18 in France were fully vaccinated by that point in time, the French government’s official spokesman, Gabriel Attal, described the health passes not as an “obligation to get vaccinated, but maximum inducement.” He stated, “We simply can’t afford to wait; we have to move as fast as we can.”

As a result of the policy change, over 1.3 million vaccine appointments were made in the 24 hours following its announcement. This is in stark contrast to the seven-day average that had hovered between 100,000 and 200,000 in France throughout much of 2021.

Almost immediately following the announcement, however, over 2,000 people marched in Paris against the policy. This was followed by a July 13 video that voiced outrage over the measure from an account with only 232 followers, which by August 3 had received over 239,000 views, 11,400 likes, and 6,200 retweets or quote tweets, indicating the level of outrage in certain segments of the population.

Screencap of a tweet including a video in which a woman expresses anger at the idea of vaccine health passes in France. The video went viral shortly following President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement of “health passes” on July 12, 2021. (Source: @jessimrebaaa_/archive)

The sentiment contained in the video was soon echoed across other segments of the French population. From July 7 to July 14, in the immediate aftermath of the health pass announcement, Twitter accounts with self-identified French locations used the #antivax hashtag more than any other accounts in the world.

Bubble graph showing that France by far was the origin of the most tweets using the hashtag #antivax from July 7 to 14. The size of the bubble shows the relative volume of tweets using #antivax attributed to self-identified France-located accounts, relative to those self-identified as elsewhere. (Source: @hanley_hans/DFRLab via Meltwater Explore)

However, despite the real frustration surrounding the announcement of health passes, various members of France’s far-right seized on it to promote mis- or disinformation, make political gains, and magnify fears that Macron was acting like a dictator.

Les Patriotes: politics and inauthentic accounts

Following Macron’s announcement, Les Patriotes leader Florian Philippot told reporters that France was “sliding into dictatorship.” He argued that the French people should “boycott everything until this health pass disappears.” Following these statements, #Boycott, #DictatureSanitaire, #dictature, and #passdelahonte all trended on Twitter. #DictatureSanitaire equates the health pass with a form of dictatorship, while #passdelahonte translates directly to “pass of shame.” Indeed, Philippot’s tweets soon became the most liked and retweeted of those using the #passdelahonte hashtags.

Line graph illustrating the rise and fall of several anti-health-pass hashtags on Twitter between July 7 and 13. In the days following the announcement of vaccine health passes by President Emmanuel Macron, several seemingly anti-vaccine and anti-health-pass hashtags took hold on French Twitter. (Source: @hanley_hans/Flourish)

It is unclear what percentage of the tweets using the hashtags were actually anti-vax or anti-health pass and what percentage were using them to argue against anti-vax or anti-health pass sentiment.

Taking advantage of the moment, sandwiched in between a tweet calling the French health pass an “assault on liberty” and another saying it was as “a form of apartheid,” Philippot announced his candidacy for president in the French 2022 election.

Screengrab of tweets from Florian Philippot. In between tweets attacking the health pass, Philippot announced his candidacy for the presidency. (Source:@f_philippot/archive)

In addition to @f_philippot and @_LesPatriotes, the main Twitter account for Les Patriotes, several other members of Les Patriotes further bolstered anti-vaccine or anti-health pass messages.

Screencaps of tweets from Les Patriotes party member accounts @Erichermoz and @JBollee, conveying messages about upcoming protests and anti-health-pass narratives. (Source: @Erichermoz/archive, left; @JBollee/archive, right)

The DFRLab found a further 67 regional accounts under the name of Les Patriotes that echoed and bolstered the anti-vax and anti-health pass messages of the main @_LesPatriotes and @f_philippot accounts. Indeed, these accounts seem to exist only to amplify and retweet messages from @f_philippot and the main @_LesPatirotes Twitter accounts. They also appear to be aimed at different regions of France. Nearly all of these accounts merely appended a number to the moniker “@lespatriots” and had a small number of followers. A complete list of these accounts can be found on Github.

Screencap of the Twitter accounts for three of Les Patriotes regional affiliates. (Source: @LesPatriotes_91/archive, left; @LesPatriotes_77/archive, middle; @LesPatriotes21/archive, right)

In addition to tweets bolstering protests against the health pass, Les Patriotes and Philippot soon waded into vaccine and COVID-19 misinformation. Philippot, within his barrage of tweets, advocated for the use of the drug ivermectin and claimed that vaccinations were not effective against the delta variant of COVID-19. He then suggested that, because of these two factors, it made little sense to have vaccine health passes at all. In actuality, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 88 percent effective against symptomatic disease and 96 percent effective against hospitalization for patients with the delta variant. Similarly, ivermectin is an unproven treatment for COVID-19 and is still undergoing trials.

Screencaps of Florian Philippot’s tweets. In addition to promoting messages aimed at the vaccine health passes, Philippot spread vaccine misinformation. In these two tweets, Philippot suggests that vaccines do not protect against the COVID-19 virus and that ivermectin can cure COVID-19 patients. (Source @f_philippot/archive, left; @f_philippot/archive, right).

Altogether, Twitter accounts affiliated with Les Patriotes have played a significant role in promoting vaccine misinformation, anti-vaccine sentiment, and fears about the vaccine health pass.

Other French politicians, the French media, and inauthentic Twitter accounts

In addition to Les Patriotes-affiliated accounts, several other far-right and “Frexit” supporters (French exit from the European Union) further amplified fears about the health passes. Francois Asselineau, leader of the pro-Frexit Union Populaire Républicaine, referred to the health passes as “dictatorial,” promoted ivermectin as a COVID treatment, and further amplified messages of mass protest against them.

Screencaps of tweets posted to the account of Francois Asselineau, leader of the Union Populaire Républicaine, who tweeted about the health passes, promoted protests, and spread COVID-19 misinformation. (Source: @UPR_Asselineau/archive, left; @UPR_Asselineau/archive, top right; @UPR_Asselineau/archive, bottom right)

An account under Vincent Vauclin, founder of the French Dissent party and current leader of the Mouvement National-Démocrate, also stoked anger at the health passes. Vauclin tweeted the most popular #DictatureSanitaire tweet, equating the health passes to an “Orwellian” dystopia.

Screencaps of tweets posted to Vincent Vauclin’s account and that of his party, Mouvement National-Démocrate. Both he and his party called for protests against the health passes. (Source: @vincent_vauclin/archive, left; @NatDem_fr/archive, right)

Several French media companies, including TV Ye and the French right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro, also criticized the health passes. As reported in The Washington Post, Le Figaro described the health passes as a move toward “mandatory vaccination for all.”

Screencap of a post to TV Ye’s Twitter account. Since July 13, the outlet has promoted protests and anger about the vaccine health passes. Pictured here is their reporting on the anti-vaccine protests using the hashtag #Passedelahonte (“pass of shame”). (Source: @tvyefr/archive)

Lastly, the DFRLab identified two significant inauthentic accounts that have consistently promoted anti-vaccine messaging on French Twitter: @L_Infirmier_0ff and @LE__GENERAL__0f.

Screencaps of tweets from the accounts @L_Infirmier_0ff and @LE__GENERAL__, both 0f which have promoted anti-vaccine and anti-health pass messaging. Pictured here are the current incarnations of the two accounts, as prior iterations of both accounts have been deleted and recreated several times. Note the similar background image and lack of personal biographies. (Source: @L_Infirmier_0ff/archive, left; @LE__GENERAL__0f/archive, right)

During the writing of this piece, both accounts were deleted. However, they appear to have been deleted and recreated multiple times under similar names.

Graphic of the different accounts associated with Le General and L’Infirmier. Le General and L’Infirmeir have had many incarnations and the accounts have been periodically deleted. (Source: @hanley_hans/DFRLab via Flourish)

They also often retweeted each other. With a least 34 different iterations of the “Le General” account, the now deleted account @L_Infirmier_0ff had retweeted some form of the former account nearly 500 times. Similarly, with at least seven incarnations of the L’Infirmier account, the now deleted @LE__GENERAL__0f account had retweeted some version of the “L’Infirmier” account 159 times.

Screencaps showing various iterations of the Le General and L’Infirmeir Twitter accounts retweeting each other. (Source: @L_Infrimeir0ff/archive, left; @LE_GENERALOFF_/archive, right)

Given that these sets of accounts have been continually deleted and recreated, use similar backgrounds, continue to retweet each other, talk about the same topics, and use a similar naming strategy for new accounts, it is very possible that they are run by the same person or organization. While the DFRLab could not confirm a reason for their behavior, the repeated deletion and re-creation of the accounts may be an attempt to avoid suspension or deplatforming by Twitter.

While there are legitimate debates surrounding the implementation of vaccine health passes in France, far-right political figures and likeminded inauthentic accounts have further inflamed matters with vaccine misinformation and fear-mongering. Flagrantly false information has spread regarding COVID vaccines on French Twitter, along with anger, as protests fueled in part by misinformation have rocked the country. It is another example of how ostensibly organic protests and related online discourse have potential to be a self-reinforcing mechanism, as anti-vaccine and anti-health pass narratives fuel real-life demonstrations, which then fed back into the information ecosystem.

Hans Hanley is a research intern with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Cite this case study:

Hans Hanley, “Misinformation regarding France’s COVID-19 ‘health passes’ spread on Twitter,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), August 4, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/misinformation-regarding-frances-covid-19-health-passes-spread-on-twitter-ba344920bc16.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.