France: How journalists fought fake news in election full of scandals

by Jane Whyatt

An innovative project from the American think-and-do tank First Draft News has shed light on many murky aspects of the 2017 French presidential election campaign. In the CrossCheck project, journalists from a number of different newspapers and websites worked together to verify and examine claims from all sides of the political spectrum.

Cross check 900X600 The bilingual Cross Check platform was set up to counter fake news during the French elections, and may or may not see a repeat during the German ones coming up in September. (Screenshot:

Does (new president) Emanuel Macron have an offshore bank account? Did France’s Congolese disapora support anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen? Is it true that President François Hollande flew to cast his vote in his constituency aboard his own private jet? These and many other stories came under scrutiny from First Draft's CrossCheck team of journalists.

First Draft News is a non-profit organisation that receives funding from the Google News Lab initative, amongst other backers. It includes more than 70 international news organisations, including BBC, Dagbladet, Deutsche Welle, AFP and The New York Times, as well as fact-checkers Full Fact and Stop Fake News.

Although aimed at articles stemming from the French elections for now, the CrossCheck site is also available in English. A system was set up allowing site visitors to submit their own questions for fact-checking.

Now that the presidential elections are over in France, the CrossCheck team will analyse the results and produce reports before re-grouping and deciding whether to tackle fake news for the German federal election campaign, which culminates on 24 September 2017.

Coming up: ECPMF conference

"Defending the truth in a post truth age" is an ECPMF conference for members, journalists, lawyers and activitists being held on 13-14 June 2017, in Leipzig, Germany. Participants will try out new tools for fact-checking whilst debating examples and case studies from all over Europe regarding fighting fake news. The conference is free to attend and coincides with the ECPMF Members Assembly. Sign up via e-mail to receive more details.

Two different perspectives on fake news

Aline Robert, editor-in-chief of the EURACTIV France news portal, has been actively involved in the CrossCheck project. In an interview with the ECPMF, she shared some of her observations trying to fight back the tide of fake news:

"From what we analysed, it seemed to be the case that most fake news came from the right wing. (...) But it might be just that we happened to see these. It's totally impossible to control and check all the news. There has been fake news in both camps. Also they were using what's coming from Russian propaganda. You know Russia is putting a lot of money on the table to feed news that are not totally right through Sputnik or Russia Today. Some of that was used by the extreme right. They have the same fight, to show that migrants are really dangerous and they are criminals in Europe. And they are trying to use what Russia produced to make some noise about immigration."

Robert cited the example of a news item on the French edition of Sputnik, a news agency whose parent company is Rossiya Segodnya, owned by the Russian government. She said Sputnik claimed there was a movement of one million people ready to fight new immigrants to Europe.

But Sputnik’s Paris reporter Édouard Chanot told the ECPMF that piece of news was not originated by his organisation, and he promised to check the source and correct it if need be. In an interview with the ECPMF, he denies political bias and propaganda:

"Within our staff... this is something no one knows, or no one wants to know about Sputnik France... is that we have journalists from the radical left, from the so-called sovereign right and from the centre. My editor in chief is a centre-right-centre-left person, so it's very balanced. We did our best to be neutral."

Chanot admits that he finds it tough to be the target of criticism, for example from the now President-elect Macron. Plus, his experience of covering the election campaign included a violent protest by the far left in which a police officer was badly burned with a Molotov cocktail.

But on the question of fake news, he is relaxed:

First we should not panic about it. I am more worried about some answers that are being proposed to combat it. Like for example, Le Monde becoming judge and jury on what is fake, giving ratings in different colours (red, yellow or green) to different stories through Décodex."

He elaborated on the mechanism being used: "It’s an app, it appears on your web page and depending on the website you have a red, orange or green symbol. Sputnik gets orange. But that’s OK – it’s the same colour as our logo!"

Chanot claims that despite its critics, the Sputnik audience has tripled over the past two years, and he believes it provides a necessary alternative to the French mainstream media, which "lacks diversity".