It’s practically impossible to know whether an account is run by an actual person or by a Twitter bot, and even more difficult to find out whether an account is run by a foreign misinformation network.
The fact-checking NGO DisinfoLab said that while an “extraordinary” number of Benalla-linked tweets had been published, there was “no proof” Russian propaganda bots had been used to artificially amplify the scandal in an effort to hurt the Macron administration.
“Some 247,701 twitter users published more than 4.5 million tweets about the Benalla affair between July 19 and August 3,” a DisinfoLab spokesman said, before adding that there was no way of knowing whether the tweets had been published by “actual humans or by bots”.
The spokesman added: “It’s practically impossible to know whether an account is run by an actual person or by a Twitter bot, and even more difficult to find out whether an account is run by a foreign misinformation network.”
The disproportionately high number of tweets sparked fears of Russian interference, with government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux and other Macron allies urging anti-fake news groups to shed light on the abnormally high Twitter activity.
However, communications expert Stéphanie Lamy said the Twitter storm “corresponds to the French media’s strong interest in the affair”.
Mr Benalla was sacked as Mr Macron’s security chief after he was caught on camera roughing up two protesters on May Day while posing as a police officer.
While the Elysée Palace knew of the assault in May, Mr Benalla was only sacked and taken into police custody after the scandal was made public by Le Monde newspaper on July 18, more than two months after the incident took place.
The government’s failure to properly punish Mr Benalla – he was initially suspended for two weeks and demoted – plunged Mr Macron into the deepest crisis of his tenure after his critics accused him of covering up the incident, an allegation he has fiercely denied.
But the scandal shows no sign of abating.
On Wednesday, the French satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné added more fuel to the Benalla fire after it published a note written by Paris police chief Michel Delpuech in which he called the disgraced bodyguard his “dear friend”.
Mr Delpuech, however, said shortly after the May Day video came to light that he had “never had Mr Benalla’s number” in an apparent effort to distance himself from the affair.
Mr Delpuech, who referred to the scandal as a case of “toxic cronyism,” denied being close to Mr Benalla, telling Le Canard Enchaîné that the note thanking the ex-bodyguard for a framed photograph of police officers posing with Mr Macron was “nothing but a gesture of courtesy”.