By Mark Hosenball and Joseph Menn
(Reuters) - French voters are being deluged with false stories on social media ahead of the country's presidential election, though the onslaught of "junk news" is not as severe as that during last year's U.S. presidential campaign, according to a study by Oxford University researchers.
The study to be published Friday and another published on Wednesday add evidence to complaints by officials in France, Germany and the United States that Russia is trying to replicate its cyber-powered election meddling in American politics.
Just days before France votes in the first round of a presidential election, the study said misinformation at times has accounted for one-quarter of the political links shared on Twitter in France. It defined "junk news" as deliberately false stories and those expressing "ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial" views with logical flaws and opinions passed along as facts.
"French voters are sharing better quality information than what many U.S. voters shared and almost as much quality news and information as German users share," according to the study by the Oxford Internet Institute, which will be published on Friday but was made available on Thursday to Reuters.
The French study uses data from a recent week on Twitter but a greater role is being played by Facebook, said Kevin Limonier of the University of Paris VIII, who is studying social media manipulation in the election with a grant from the French government.
Facebook recently suspended 30,000 suspected automated accounts in France. Although it characterized the cleanup as an objective move against spamming, many of the profiles were distributing politically driven misinformation and propaganda.
On Twitter, where automated accounts are allowed, many of the same accounts that promoted Republican Donald Trump in the U.S. campaign last year have turned their attention to pushing conspiracy theories and far-right viewpoints, according to Limonier and Clinton Watts, a former FBI agent and now a senior fellow at the George Washington University Centre for Cyber and Homeland Security.
RUSSIA SHIFTS FOCUS TO GERMANY
"A contingent of the Trump campaign supporters we believe to be 'bots' and accounts from Russia have shifted to Germany,” Watts said. "If I had to estimate, about one-third of previous Trump supporter accounts are now trying to influence the German election."
Another study published this week from the private research group Bakamo showed a similar percentage of fake news versus real news on social media in France as that found by the Oxford researchers. Much of the fake news came from sources that were "exposed to Russian influence," the Bakamo study said.
The Oxford researchers say their study of social media traffic in the days before the U.S. presidential election last November showed that Michigan voters shared an equal amount of genuine and fake news with each other.
By contrast, in the days leading up to the less divisive German presidential election in February, the Oxford study "found Germans sharing four professionally produced news stories for every one piece of junk."
"All in all, U.S. voters were sharing very poor quality news and information about major public policy debates at a critical time before a national election," Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Institute said. "Both German and French voters are sharing much smaller amounts of junk news."
Before he left office in January, President Barack Obama said sharp political divisions made the United States particularly vulnerable to foreign influence and information warfare. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russian government interfered in the election to help Trump win.
The Oxford Institute said that while the biggest proportion of postings in France concerned moderate candidate Emmanuel Macron, who has done well in polls, "highly automated accounts" have "occasionally generated large amounts of traffic about" conservative Francois Fillon.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Joseph Menn; Additional reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Bill Trott)