Could Twitter 'undermine' France's presidential vote?
Some analysts fear that French election law has been caught on the back foot by the explosion of social media in recent years, and that web users could break the rules that apply to traditional media by publishing exit poll results.
Members of the French public posting opinion poll results on Twitter and Facebook before voting stations close may find themselves in breach of French law, while “undermining the integrity of the election”, according to French Sunday newspaper le Journal du Dimanche.
Under current rules, French media are prohibited from publishing polls or exit poll results between midnight on the Friday preceding election day until all voting stations have closed on Sunday (all elections in France take place on a Sunday). This happens at 8pm in cities but at 6pm in smaller towns. The first round of the 2012 presidential vote will take place on Sunday April 22 and the second on May 6.
But users of websites like Twitter and Facebook – which the French polling commission confirmed fall within the legal definition of “media” – are unused to abiding by strict rules that govern the type of information that can be published about candidates and when.
The Journal du Dimanche said on Sunday that “in an extreme case [unlawful media coverage] could even lead to the cancellation of the election.”
The law a lame duck
While all traditional media in France have pledged to stick to the rules, the Journal du Dimanche sketched out a scenario whereby social networks such as Twitter could render the country’s election law a lame duck.
“It is 6.45pm on Sunday April 22 and exit poll results are circulating on Twitter,” the newspaper says. “France’s 5.2 million Twitter users can look at exit poll results in real time, and the country’s 40 million Facebook users start posting the results.
“The website of a big Swiss newspaper launches a “scoop”, flying in the face of French law ‘because half of France already knows’.”
Knowing early results, especially in an area where candidates might be neck and neck, could lead to voters being influenced by early results (which are usually extremely accurate), the newspaper explained, undermining the carefully controlled balance of the electoral system.
“In the case of an extremely close result between two candidates, it would be within the loser’s rights to appeal the results before the Constitutional Council and demand that the election be cancelled.”
System ‘needs to be reviewed’
This is precisely the situation French election law aims to prevent.
But with Facebook in huge ascendancy since the last presidential vote in France (May 2007) - a time when Twitter had only just launched and was virtually unknown – the law has yet to catch up with the new media landscape.
“There is a very real risk here,” Franck Louvrier, head of communications for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, told the JDD. “We are facing a media environment that has no limits.”
Herve Berrou, head of news for BFMTV, added: “We will respect the law come what may. But … [with the Internet] we are faced with a host of new threats to the election rules in this country. The system needs to be reviewed urgently.”