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03.04.2019 Europe

Fake News In France: Helping Teenagers To Spot It

By Mike Woods - RFI
RFI/Mike Woods
APR 3, 2019 EUROPE

Fake news has flourished online in France in recent years, influencing information about the Yellow Vest movement, terror attacks, Roma people, vaccinations and more. A new book seeks to give young people the critical skills to navigate the sea of information.

Kevin Razy, a comedian and television show host who is also active on YouTube, hosts a late night programme inspired by American political satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Adept at following current affairs and commenting on them on his programme and on YouTube, he has also witnessed the rise of fake news in France with the development of online platforms.

“For several years, French people have been placing less trust in traditional media,” he says in his office at the Canal Plus television station.

“They say it's all the same, that it's manipulated by the powerful. They prefer the Internet, but it's important to know how to read what you're seeing, because a lot on the Internet is manipulated, too.”

Explaining how fake news works

Over the years, satire has at times been taken so seriously as to shift opinion during election campaigns, which led to Razy publishing his book, whose title translates as "Fake News: How to Avoid the Trap".

The idea of the book is to equip young readers with the critical thinking skills to tell the difference between parody, propaganda, conspiracy theories and the falsification of information that has come to be known as fake news.

“It makes you want to believe it, which makes you share it, without even reading the article,” Razy says.

“The problem is that people will see the fake news but not the refutation. Fake news spreads very quickly. But correcting it is ten times harder, because the correction does not spread so easily.”

Part of the premise is that readers can verify for themselves, according to information they can find on the web, whether information is designed to inform them or to manipulate them.

“One of first things to do is to read the article and not just the headline, because often they have nothing to do with each other,” Razy explains.

“Then, you go to a search engine and see if other, more reputable media are talking about it. If it's hard to find sources, that's a warning that it may be wrong.”

Conspiracy theories from Roma to measles to Yellow Vests

While the book takes fake news as a global phenomenon – US President Donald Trump, who has popularised the term by using it to attack critics, makes multiple appearances – it also comes at a time when falsification affects French topics.

The dynamics of fake news were on display last week as French officials scrambled to contain false rumours spreading on the web and on social media about alleged kidnappings of children by Roma people.

Despite the lack of evidence, the rumours triggered vigilante attacks on Roma settlements in the Paris region. On Tuesday, a 19-year-old man was sentenced to 18 months in prison for assaulting two Roma people.

Elsewhere, the World Health Organization has linked a rise in measles cases to a growing anti-vaccination movement on social media, and a French couple who had not vaccinated their child was blamed for reintroducing the disease to Costa Rica last month.

And conspiracy theories have been present throughout the Yellow Vest movement, notably around a shooting attack in Strasbourg in December.

Teenagers 'question pretty much everything'

A study published last year found four out of five people in France believed some form of conspiracy theory and that youth were generally more susceptible to believing false information.

Razy, though, does not believe fake news is a problem restricted to teenagers.

“The book is for 13- to 18-year-olds, but it's relevant to adults, too,” Razy says. “My mother sees things on Facebook and believes they're true, because they look true. But they're not.”

The emphasis rather is on developing critical skills at an age when people begin questioning the world and, through digital technology, become more exposed to information in many forms.

“Teenagers often ask good questions, and they question pretty much everything, but they don't always go and find the right answers,” Razy says.

“That's why the book gives them a way to find the right answers.”

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