Cherry-picking the apocalypse

or, Fearmongering for 'Likes'

Posted: 2023-10-29
Updated: 2024-04-14
Stats: 1567 words / ~8 minutes

“Did you hear what happened today?”

“No, what?”

“Somebody was killed…”

That is a common exchange I’ve had with my students. It seems to me that more than once a day, something atrocious is happening here in France. Statistically, that is likely true. France is small, but that doesn’t exclude it from tragedy.

Most times, I ask where they heard this gruesome news. And the answers are many. It could be France Info, or the Courrier, or BFM. But, that is only half the story.

I have come across something so utterly common that it is truly banal, yet it bothers me. It bothers me just as much as fake news, and Internet trolls.

It is an Instagram account. Yes. Just a fucking Instagram account.

If it bleeds…

I believe we have all noticed while reading the news that sensationalism leads. And, if it bleeds, all the better. Who cares about a breakthrough cure for a deadly disease when there are robberies, car-jackings, and kidnappings? And all of those horrible things take a backseat to the big ones (you know what I’m talking about). Obviously, when there is a war happening in another part of the world, news outlets are clawing at the door of any tale of woe they can get their paws on.

It is our fault, as readers, though. We like the dirty details. So we read. Today, though, reading is hard. You need to click on a link, accept some cookies, maybe turn off the ad-blocker, scroll past the header, and just as the story is getting good the text fades away and a subscribe button is waiting for you.

That is a bit of a turn-off for anyone, especially social media sites. They want you to stay on their feed. I would, too, if I ran a social media page. That is the goal, isn’t it.

What if there were a way to combine the most horrible stories into a feed and keep the readers on the page?

This is what Occidentis is. It is a rundown of the nastiest shit to happen in France; an echo chamber of racism, xenophobia, fearmongering, homophobia, and hatred. The nearly 90,000 followers have 6,400 posts of one-sided cherry-picked stories to share and comment on. The stories are not fake, but the fear and hatred is amplified.

At this point, if I had a comments section, a reader would be scrolling to the bottom to point out the 90,000 followers is hardly anything to write a blog about. That is micro-influencer territory. We would agree on that, but we cannot dismiss accounts like this.

Unfiltered media

Have you ever been told to do your own research by someone who has alternative sources of information? Have you heard people talking about how mainstream media doesn’t want us to know things? Well, congratulations, you have rubbed elbows with an Alternative Influence Network. I am not too keen on using political labels because I don’t have the background in that subject, but I can say with some certainty that these types of networks are generally of the conservative (read right-leaning) mindset.

Occidentis is therefore a micro-influencer for people whose “values and norms of behaviour differ substantially from those of mainstream society”1. Because, yes, the hippies of yesterday are the squares of today, and being conservative is a counterculture. By presenting itself as a form of unfiltered media, Occidentis is attempting to appeal to its audience as “countercultural social underdogs”2 in order to influence, and maybe even radicalize, its audience by presenting a political ideology by amplifying the negative.

The founder of Occidentis can be found on LinkedIn. They finished high school in 2016, went on to post-secondary studies, did some internships and sandwich courses, founded Occidentis in 2019, and became a freelance writer for Valeurs Actuelles (“Magazine of the outspoken right”) in 2020.

How bad is it?

The word ideology is a tad loaded. A set of beliefs is an ideology though, especially when these beliefs cover politics, economics, the environment, and other systems. Without committing myself to a deep-dive, because I don’t have Instagram, I collected a handful of examples from just the first few pages of posts to highlight their beliefs.

None of this is private. There is no detective work going on here. But, I will blur the names of the other users, just because.

Examples (retrieved using Proxigram)
Example posts (retrieved using Proxigram)

Most of their posts are textual cards that feature a sensationalist or slanted version of the news. It is very important that I point out again, this is not fake news. The source is mentioned, but the text on the card has an added spin. Looking at the examples above, we can see a post about the top 30 subventions to pro-migrant associations (top left) with comments complaining about what taxes are being used for. The top right image is a video from BFM when the recording was interrupted by protestors, the comments are about how security is lax because of leftists. In the second row, on the left, a story about a terrorist attack in Brussels with a quote.

Let’s stop on that one for a moment.

None of these posts actually link to the stories. It just says Source: something. Do you want to stop your scrolling streak to search for a story? What are we, animals? But a mouth-breather like me did want to see how this quote matched up with the article.

That story is from La Libre, a Belgian source. If you were to look at the article, you’d notice that the quote isn’t quite right. If I were to quote an article and wrote it like this:

“Blah blah blah (…) yadda yadda yadda”

You would think that that was the quote. As in, I started a sentence with Blah, paused, and completed my sentence. Or, maybe, that I began speaking with Blah and went on a tangent before finishing up with yadda.

This is not what happened here. Whoever worked on this post (LinkedIn lists some students as freelance writers) took two parts of the article and put them together, creating a new, false quote.

The full article contains quotes from the parents explaining that their son had always had problems with violence. It is not apologetic. It is factual.

Moving on…

The post on the right in the second row is about a bus driver attacked by someone who happened to be from the migrant camps in Calais. The comments talk about arming yourself and how the government is financing murderers. The post on the bottom left unnecessarily mentions the nationality of a student found carrying hydrochloric acid outside their school—this is not mentioned in the article, but only in the accompanying video—with comments calling for the teen to be deported.

The last post is sourced from SudInfo. The story sounds sensational. It is a quote from a school teacher that says, “My students wanted to pray for the terrorist.” Well, I just had to go look at that article. And, guess what? Subscribers only. After bypassing that, I was able to read the full story. It is actually more interesting than that quote lets on. The teacher works at a school located rather close to where the incident took place. The article points out that the school is a positive discrimination school. The full quote is more of a complaint about social networks, and the teacher is lamenting that they are learning about religion through TikTok.

There is one funny thing, though. And that is the comment on the very bottom right:

Pays full franc mac […]

This user thinks that the Freemasons are somehow involved. Conspiracy theorist? Coincidence? Who knows?

…it leads

While I applaud the entrepreneurial endeavour of attempting the near-impossible—becoming an influencer—I cannot applaud profiting from negativity bias, doomerism, and straight up lies. The posts shared by Occidentis do not include direct links to the source, meaning the authors and publishers are missing out on clicks. This is likely because the posts on this channel are just a mixture of false connections and context, misleading content, and textbook definitions of fake news.

Molina et al., in “Fake News” Is Not Simply False Information: A Concept Explication and Taxonomy of Online Content, talk about the seven types of fake news and present several easy to follow tables to help categorize it. Occidentis is polarized and sensationalist (see table 5):

Fearmongering for likes by cherry-picking the worst things happening in a country is low-hanging fruit, which is probably why Occidentis has not managed to go beyond micro-influencer levels of popularity. Channels like this are actively engaging in racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and other forms of hatred, all while hiding behind a thin veil of sharing the news or a sloppy definition of freedom of speech. They propagate a curated set of beliefs that misrepresent and twist reality. We should not overlook channels like this, no matter how small of a following they have.

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