French Elections are Coming up. Right-Wing Politicians Are Dominating the Vaccine Debate on Twitter. Here's Why: (Episode 24)

Eva & Daiva @ The Inoculation

We used a custom Twitter scraper to collect and analyze the tweets of 12 candidates slated to run in the first round of the French presidential election on April 10.  We discuss our findings and talk to Estelle Brun, an associate research fellow at IRIS - Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques in Paris.

The French Elections are Coming up. Right-Wing Politicians Are Dominating the Vaccine Debate on Twitter.
We used a custom Twitter scraper to collect and analyse the tweets of 12 candidate’s slated to run in the first round of the French presidential election on April 10. We discuss our findings and talk to Estelle Brun, an associate research fellow at IRIS - Institut de Relations Internationales et…
Click here to listen to the episode.

This is a summary of what candidates think about vaccination. You can read specifically about vaccine passports here and about racism and exclusion in electoral debates here. You can also listen to our episode where we discuss how vaccine mandates may backfire - featuring former European Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis.

After the investigation is complete, you will be able to find the code we used for the analysis of the French data on our GitHub repository. The Twitter list of French presidential candidates can be found here. The production of this investigation is supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund. The International Press Institute (IPI), the European Journalism Centre (EJC) and any other partners in the IJ4EU fund are not responsible for the content published and any use made out of it.

Here's the transcript:

Estelle Brun  0:00
In France, politicians have politicized the endemic. It's been the case in a lot of places. And so whatever the government in place is going to do, it's going to be criticized by his opponents on all sides.

Eva Schaper  0:23
You just heard Estelle Brun, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic and International Affairs in Paris. We called her last week, because the French presidential election is coming up with the first round of voting on the 10th of April. We'll walk you through the candidates a bit later in the program. Hello, listeners, welcome to the inoculation. This is our 24th episode. My name is Eva Schaper.

Daiva Repeckaite  0:52
And my name is de vida prescribed it. We are very excited to present the first results of our work that kept us busy for months.

Eva Schaper  0:59
Do you want to tell our listeners what kind of work that was?

Daiva Repeckaite  1:04
Yeah. So we had to learn to analyze massive amounts of tweets, because we were interested in what debates happen on Twitter among politicians as they prepare for different elections in Europe, and how vaccination features in those debates. But then, just looking at tweets wasn't enough, because that would would be very anecdotal and maybe biased. So with the data mentor, we developed a codes that can automate our analysis.

Eva Schaper  1:34
Exactly. And for a lot of the European countries, I think we have five so far. We looked at all of the members of the country's parliament. So in Germany, we looked at the Punda stock, and we looked at Portugal and Austria and France. But now for France, what we did, we only looked at the 12 candidates who are actually going to run for French president and not everyone who is in the assembly Nasional.

Daiva Repeckaite  2:05
Yeah, they seem to be talking about a lot of different topics. Of course, Russia's war in Ukraine features prominently in the debates. But since we're interested in vaccination, it seems that they've been talking about vaccination and vaccine mandates a lot. Is that right?

Eva Schaper  2:20
Yeah, one of the things we saw is that we have a number of far right candidates in France in this round of the presidential election. And one of our findings is really, that they talk about vaccination a lot. They talk a lot about, for example, the French vaccine passport

Daiva Repeckaite  2:39
weight. So when we talk about French favourite candidates, I think everybody knows Marine LePen. So do you mean her followers and her party?

Eva Schaper  2:49
Well, mine the pen was and I think her father, from our independence, they were they were really the first enter the national stage. But now we we see many more, and they're trying to outdo each other and almost make lapins seem as an establishment party. We asked Estelle about this, and this is what she told us.

Unknown Speaker  3:15
Not only did we learn to live with her and her party, but now we have even worse candidates, which even makes her look better, which obviously is very painful to admit, because she is not. She shouldn't be better than than anything or anyone. There is a correlation just like in the United States between anti vaccine sentiments in general, and far right or right wing voters or politicians. So I'm not surprised that she said things against vaccines generally before. What is interesting today is that she is not against the vaccine. I would, I think she's obviously against the fact that it would be enforced because there's always this idea of unlimited freedom in the far right, for obviously, certain kind of people, not everyone. And then she has other far right politician counterparts who are much more outspoken against the vaccine and who are spreading much more misinformation. Because as you continue on, there's also a pronoun Flipo, who used to be actually in her party. They used to be very tight, and he's been out on protests every weekend against the vaccine. So we have people within the far right side that are much more against the COVID vaccine specifically.

Eva Schaper  4:51
Okay, so we'll get to that right away. And this will tell us why politicians are doing this.

Daiva Repeckaite  4:57
So she is researching how Far right candidates are trying to frame Frenchness and French identity in a completely different way. And French identity. In fact, it's her main interest. And she says that the way they see French identity is very different from the way it is traditionally seen by the French Republic.

Unknown Speaker  5:19
Every time I hear them, when they talk about freshness, when they talk about French identity and defending French identity, I don't know what they mean, because my lived experience of freshness. And I want to point out that I, I am white, and I am traditionally Christian. So I am privileged in many ways in this French society is not what they are describing, when I listen to music. When you look at the top 50. In France, there is so much diversity. There are a lot of people, rappers that are from Mac say, that are from the suburbs of Paris, and that represent us in this way. And French rap is, is a very powerful industry in the world. It's very famous. And then when I look at sports, when I go to the stadium, the nice stadium to watch my football team, I see a lot of diversity on the field. And so when you look at popular culture, which is culture, as well, it is national culture, I see a very diverse, and I wonder what they mean, when they say they want to define freshness. And I think they just want to defend an idea of what funds used to be, and probably has never existed either. But the main problem to me of the far right regarding national identity and national culture is that they think that it is taking time.

Eva Schaper  6:54
Right. Okay, so let's look at the candidate. So, as we know, Emmanuel Macron. Right now is the incumbent. And he's trying for a shot at a second term, voters will go to the polls in the first round of the presidential election on a 10th of April. And assuming that nobody wins a majority, which is predicted to happen. The top two candidates will take part in a runoff two weeks later. So let's just see who we have. So there's 12, we're not going to look at all of them, because some just didn't play a large role in our research. So of course, we have Emmanuel Macron, who's the president. He's running against Marine LePen, Assam Lemoore Nasional she took over the party for us, you know, that herb that her father from having Lipin founded, and she's been trying to get it closer to the mainstream for the past few years. So she was runner up in 2017. The last time the French people elected the president and then renamed her party as an assemblyman, or national rally, then we have validly because the Republican, she was the first ever female candidate, chosen by the right wing Republicans, and she looked like a potential contender, but she's only been doing so so in the polls since then, but she has some contenders right. We have an example of the party they can't kit which means re conquest, which you can imagine means taking back friends. He's a journalist, author and a TV commentator. And he's known for inciting racial hatred. He burst onto the political scene just last year and 2021 to promote a book that basically lemons the decline of France, which he blames on immigration and Islam.

Daiva Repeckaite  8:56
And apparently, he also opposes vaccine passports in France.

Eva Schaper  9:00
Other right wing candidates are Nicola Dupont, ignorable, he's the founder of the Bula foams arise France party, and Floyd Flipo, who founded the patriot and he used to be a member of formidable national with Marine LePen. He's also running on the idea of a flexfit for France withdrawing from the European Union.

Daiva Repeckaite  9:32
And while migration is very prominent in in their debates, we can also see that the only unvaccinated candidate and proudly so it seems, is from that group, so that's Nicola Dupont. And yeah,

Eva Schaper  9:45
so what did we find in our analysis? Let's just take a look at what we did. Could you could you explain to our listeners how we went about finding these hashtags and picking the ones to analyze

Daiva Repeckaite  9:59
Yeah, so First of all, you have compiled a list of all the candidates. And I think for whoever is following the election, it's quite useful to follow that list on Eva's Twitter account. Then we also downloaded all of their tweets for the past four months. And then when we ran our codes to analyze these tweets, we found that actually, they had very different levels of Twitter activity, some of the posts, the 1000s of tweets, others countered that with more like in the hundreds,

Eva Schaper  10:36
right, and I think what's really interesting is that Zuma is extremely active on Twitter. Yeah,

Daiva Repeckaite  10:42
he is, I don't know what his social media team if he has one looks like, but they're, they've been really active. And this is paying off because his account is getting a lot of retweets and favorites of the total sample of tweets that we collected, the median favorites that he gets between is over 2000. And that's more than the acting president Emmanuel Macron.

Eva Schaper  11:07
Exactly. And I think we shouldn't forget that mckown has something like 8 million followers on Twitter, and more, has around 300,000. So you see, he gets a lot of engagement from his followers.

Daiva Repeckaite  11:20
He's also more tweeted, compared to you acting president and more retweeted than any other candidate.

Eva Schaper  11:27
Okay. And if we look at the analysis of the hashtags, I think one interesting thing to look at is how did we pick the hashtags to analyze?

Daiva Repeckaite  11:37
Yeah, so Twitter logs, hashtags. And we can scrape the data for each tweets about which hashtags are present. And we counted which hashtags feature the most prominently, so which hashtags are mentioned the most frequently, then we came up with a sort of list of top hashtags. But since a lot of candidates were tweeting about themselves, and hashtagging, their name and their party, we try to exclude those, and we try to see what is it that is not specific to each candidate, in terms of hashtags?

Eva Schaper  12:17
And did we find a lot of hashtags that had to do with the vaccine or vaccine passport?

Daiva Repeckaite  12:23
Yeah, so in fact, past vaccinal is one of the top hashtags and if you combine the different spellings, you will get more than 150 tweets in our sample using this hashtag. For comparison, Ukraine has 183 mentions, when we look at the tweets specifically about vaccines, we again meet ex MO

Eva Schaper  12:46
Yes, and it's quite I'm looking at the numbers. Now. He has over 2000 vaccine retweets compared to Amano and mckown 774. And, you know, way down to 47.5 by an Edo, who's the mayor of Paris is also a candidate this year, two more has six knife that wasn't favorites. So again, he has a lot fewer followers than me. And he's still getting this engagement.

Daiva Repeckaite  13:16
Yeah, so it's important to note, maybe this sounds technical, but we use the median values. So actually, we try to neutralize the effect of some candidates tweeting more than others. So we picked or we asked our code to pick the tweets in the middle. So this presents us with a point of comparison among the candidates, those that tweet a lot, and those that tweet, much less. And the difference in the numbers is quite striking. And as you said, the median tweets of Eric the more gets several times more retweets, and slightly more favorites, then the tweets about vaccines from the acting president,

Eva Schaper  14:01
since we're talking about median, I always like to say, what is the difference between median and average? I think it's very good to see, you know, on average, both Bill Gates and I are billionaires.

Daiva Repeckaite  14:11
Exactly. So I guess if if we took the median between the two of us and Bill Gates, the median would would, would be a more accurate representation in this reality, because it would be one of us, whoever, and

Eva Schaper  14:28
so we'd all come out as billionaires. But

Daiva Repeckaite  14:31
so that's why we use the median. And again, this, this shows us when we compare that all the right wing candidates that you just mentioned, are in the upper half of our list of fringe candidates.

Eva Schaper  14:46
And I think one question is important. Can we say we don't really know what they're tweeting about, maybe they're tweeting about extremely positive things about the vaccine passport?

Daiva Repeckaite  14:56
Well, for this, we looked at the therapy session. As presented in debates on on television and elsewhere, and we also looked at at the sample of some of their actual tweets, but

Eva Schaper  15:09
also it might make sense that we in a future, in future also maybe do some sentiment analysis to, to be sure that these tweets are are negative, we assume that they're negative because we looked at their platforms. And we looked at some of the tweets, but we have to be honest and say, We're not 100% Sure. And we would probably still have to do sentiment analysis. Before we end our investigation.

Daiva Repeckaite  15:38
What we do know is that they got more engagement, whatever they said about vaccination, they got more engagements, then then the non right wing candidates that centrist and left wing candidates comparatively. And when we compared their tweets about vaccination and about the Coronavirus, they were also getting more engagement compared to the totals sample of tweets. So when they were tweeting about the war in Ukraine, or climate change, or any other topic that might be relevant in this election, the median engagement for these right wing candidates was lower than the engagement they were getting when they tweeted about vaccination.

Eva Schaper  16:22
Okay, this is very interesting, I think, because it does show that tweeting about vaccination does give right wing candidates an advantage. And I think we asked Estelle about this too.

Unknown Speaker  16:36
Now we have the vaccine past what we call is a symbol of, for the far right, and to some extent, for the far left as well, oppression of the state of the government. And its possibility of limiting our freedom, in many ways and in legal ways. And so that has been instrumentalized, by the far right, as an example of the limitations of democracy, which is very, very convenient for them. Because they don't play by Democratic rules, they already tones. They lie they exclude. So everything that's about equality, you know, in financial, freedom, equality, fraternity, that's our motto, they obviously go against it. And right now they're doing it in a subtle way. And so for them, it's very convenient to show the flaws in their eyes of democracy. Because eventually, they want to argue that democracy isn't the best thing for us, because they are not Democratic parties at heart.

Daiva Repeckaite  17:56
She also told us that the pandemic has given right wing contenders and advantage overall,

Unknown Speaker  18:02
what was very fortunate for the far right is that they want to go against the the system, they're against the system. And the system, the government was forced to do things that we've never seen before, just like very long lock downs. In France, they were very strict lasted for a very long time. And we've had a curfew at 6pm, for some regions in France in 2021. As far as I remember, for at least six months, or six months, it was very, very long. And so that was definitely no one can argue against this limit of our freedom. You know that that was very limiting for us. That was coming from never seen before a situation of a global pandemic, where hundreds of 1000s of people are dying, and we didn't know what would come next, if we didn't act now. And that really helps the far right, saying, look what the system is doing. There. We've been saying it forever, you have to go against it, they are abusing you, and they're abusing your freedom. They're willing to go as far as canceling your liberties of going out outside at night and will never do that. So I think I've been using the pandemic and the restrictive policies as a way of showing. That's why you get when you vote for the system, the system is always going to abuse you and go against it.

Eva Schaper  19:34
This is something that we've been seeing in our other data. We're going to start presenting data from other countries in the coming weeks, especially Portugal was quite surprising. And I think we'll look at that in the next episode of our podcast.

Daiva Repeckaite  19:52
Exactly. And what we will also see there is that the debates in France that we just discussed today are influencing The debates other countries are having.

Eva Schaper  20:08
And before we leave, I just wanted to remind you that everything we talked about, and links to our script will be added to our website so that you can find them. If you want to take a look for yourself. We'll also add a transcript. For those of you who prefer to read what's in the podcast for them to listen.

Daiva Repeckaite  20:27
If you want to hear more stories about vaccine hesitancy, you can look up the inoculation wherever you'd like to listen to podcasts.

Eva Schaper  20:34
Don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter inoculated, you can find the link in our show notes.

Daiva Repeckaite  20:39
This investigation was supported by IG for you find us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And let us know what you think about this episode. Bye for now. Bye

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