Blogger challenges DisinfoLab NGO over Twitter users data abuse in ‘French Russophiles’ study
France’s Twittersphere has been on fire since previously unknown EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based organization that says its mission is to “fight disinformation with innovative methodology” and receives money from Twitter and George Soros, issued a report about 55,000 “hyperactive” twitter accounts that had spread the news of the so-called Benalla affair.
Some users tweeting on Emmanuel Macron’s very own ‘Watergate’ scandal exposing the French president’s protester-beating bodyguard Alexandre Benalla, were labeled as ‘Russophiles.’ DisinfoLab even explained that a ‘Russophile’ is a user who shares “publicly and regularly articles from RT and Sputnik, which are state-funded Russian media” and who promotes “the pro-Russian narrative.”
French politicians such as Jean-Luc Melenchon of La France Insoumise and Marine Le Pen from the National Rally (NR, formerly Front National) were among many who found their names in the EU DisinfoLab database released alongside the report.
Among screenshots of the database circulating on Twitter, several showed a column in which the description of the user profiles were present.
One such screenshot was released by blogger Olivier Berruyer, the founder of Les Crises (The Crises) blog in which he presents his opinions on geopolitics and economic problems. Berruyer followed the EU DisinfoLab report from the release.
These intimate characteristics look like excerpts from users’ own Twitter bios: “Jew born in France,”“Queer, gay, Antifa”, “I am a lesbian.” Berruyer claimed that the files were distributed by one of the authors of the contentious report, Nicolas Vanderbiest August 5.
À ceux qui minimisent le #FichagePolitique de DisinfoLab, voici un extrait anonymisé des 2 fichiers qu'ils ont créés et diffusés.Quelles que soient nos convictions politiques, nous devrions tous nous réunir pour lutter contre ça. C'est ce qui avait permis la création de la @CNILpic.twitter.com/FWpvHljCAv— Olivier Berruyer (@OBerruyer) August 10, 2018
Responding to the criticism of their bulk collection of arguably private Twitter user data, EU DisinfoLab released a statement to the media on Saturday, saying that it has “noticed that a screenshot is currently circulating” on social media, “supposedly related to one of the files we have inadvertently released.” The group insisted that “none of these supposed user bios are coming from any of our files.” The NGO said that this may be easily verified “by simply searching” the now-deleted files. It explained that the user locations “were not part” of the files they released and the first file –with 55,000 handles of the Twitter users– only included those “who tweeted on the subject and the number of tweets and retweets they produced.”
#DisinfoEU je demande des explications du fichage dont je fais parti sans mon accord.. au @CNIL de réagir selon la loi bafouée,.. Les opinions politiques @cnil et le #rgpd (art 9), pic.twitter.com/7q0wq4TPfM— Ici et Maintenant (@CorinneDeltombe) August 8, 2018
Yet Berruyer, whose Les Crises blog has almost 30,000 followers, insists that the files with bio details were included in the report and that the screenshots he shared were genuine – but the originals have since been wiped by the report’s authors. He released links to several accounts which also posted screenshots with the Twitter biography information, allegedly present in the original files shared by the NGO.
On Friday Vanderbiest himself expressed his apologies to those negatively affected by the publication of the document. However, in a lengthy statement, Brussels-born Vanderbiest says that he believes that “any data on Twitter is public data” and that there was no “personal intervention” in the report. "I am passionate, too. I am neither a fascist nor a spook,” he insists.
The scale of response of those who found themselves among those 55,000 was quite enormous. The Twitterati began releasing screen grabs of their handles, making fun and taking pride in being ‘Russophiles.’ Some changed the names of their accounts into numbers by which they were listed by the NGO. Others went even further and renamed their accounts in Russian: “Лемаркич matricule 31884,” “Franck Noir Чёрный Франк – Opposant N°2045.”
In the meantime, France’s National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL) confirmed that it received numerous complaints from Internet users who are worried about being listed by the NGO.
Alexandre Alaphilippe, a director at EU DisinfoLab, told RT that the study never intended to detect “Russian meddling” in the Benalla scandal. “We never said this. The fact that lawmakers or the government spokesperson immediately exploited this for political ends, created a sort of hype that was never the object of our study,” he said.
However, independent journalist Luc Rivet told RT that the NGO (which was created in December 2017) is not an innocent neutral, but rather the respectable face of the ongoing information war – with Russia as the target. “DisinfoLab is the embryo of the propaganda machine of the EU. And many nationally-oriented politicians will be furious with these revelations,” he said.
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