Smoke in New Caledonia
Misinformation about unrest in New Caledonia spread on social media platforms such as TikTok and X. Image by AP PHOTO

Foreign states spread New Caledonia ‘misinformation’

Kate Atkinson June 24, 2024

Misinformation has fuelled the recent unrest in New Caledonia, with experts warning of foreign involvement.

Nine people including two police officers died amid violent protests that swept New Caledonia in May after France voted to allow thousands more French residents who have lived in its Pacific territory for 10 years to vote.

Indigenous Kanaks fear it will dilute their vote and make it harder for any future referendum on independence to pass, while Paris says the measure is needed to improve democracy.

Amid the unrest, misinformation spread on social media platforms including Facebook, TikTok and X.

French police in New Caledonia
 Posts on social media incorrectly claimed martial law had been imposed in New Caledonia. 

Authorities banned the Chinese-owned app TikTok, believing it was being used to spread disinformation.

AAP FactCheck debunked false claims that martial law had been imposed and that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had put ADF troops on standby to help France quash the protests.

The latter claim was traced to a post on X by Simeon Boikov, also known as Aussie Cossack, a pro-Putin commentator who resides at Russia’s consulate in Sydney.

French disinformation watchdog Viginum also detected a coordinated social media campaign from accounts linked to Azerbaijan’s ruling party.

Azerbaijan’s relationship with France has deteriorated over French support for Armenia in their border war.

The campaign shared at least 86 posts on X featuring an image appearing to show a man in khaki pointing a rifle at a Kanak protester on the ground, Viginum reported.

The image, which was actually two different photographs spliced together, was reposted with the caption: “The french police are murderers – Algerian Murders continue”, and hashtags including #RecognizeNewCaledonia, #EndFrenchColonialism and #BoycottParis2024.

Azerbaijan’s involvement is unusual, Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Blake Johnson said.

“We have seen some examples of information operations being conducted in the region from external actors such as China and Russia during times of unrest or election periods, but this is certainly the first time we have seen reports of Azerbaijan spreading disinformation in the region,” he told AAP.

“However, the success of these external campaigns varies and sometimes campaigns using foreign media outlets, such as the Global Times, to spread messages do not receive significant traction in the Pacific online information environment and are not further propagated by locals.

“Pushing these narratives through local traditional and social media usually results in greater penetration and engagement online.”

Russia's Maria Zakharova
 Russia’s Maria Zakharova says the unrest in New Caledonia stems from the decolonisation process. 

Dr Frederic Grare, an Indo-Pacific security expert at the Australian National University, said Azerbaijan founded the Baku Initiative Group in 2023 to support anti-colonial claims against France.

He said Azerbaijani flags were seen at demonstrations in New Caledonia before the recent unrest.

“It has nothing to do with any specific claim of Azerbaijan – it has everything to do with the willingness of Azerbaijan to retaliate against France over its support to Armenia,” Dr Grare told AAP.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a May 18 statement that the unrest stemmed from the “lack of finality” in the decolonisation process. 

Emphasising “colonialism” simplified a complex situation for a “deliberate political purpose”, Dr Grare said.

“Yes, the trigger was officially the reform of the electoral list. But beyond that you’ve got a set of economic and social problems, which are very real by the way,” he said.

Azerbaijan and Russia had used information to exploit the situation, according to Dr Grare.

“This is more partial information … striking things from their context and giving you only part of the reality – which I personally equate with misinformation,” he said.

China has not publicly commented on the reasons for the protests, but Dr Grare said “the crisis itself is good for China”.

“It does make New Caledonia sort of a foil for France’s interests in the region,” he said.

Foreign interference in New Caledonia was relevant to France’s strategic allies such as Australia, Dr Grare said.

“They also create a problem for other countries like Australia because the reality is that whatever France does, good or bad, is useful in the current power competition in the region,” he said.

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