Just a few days ahead of the French presidential election, social networks like Facebook and particularly Twitter, have started worrying the authorities, regarding the release of election results before the legal time.
In order to ensure the legitimacy of the presidential election and the orderly progress of voting, the French electoral code forbids the publication of any survey data or partial vote counting. The ban begins from Friday preceding the election (presidential elections normally take place on Sundays) on midnight until the closure of all voting stations on Sunday 8 p.m. Despite the authorities' concerns on possible results leaks, Twitter will not undermine the elections.
From the worst case scenarios… Facebook and Twitter are considered as public broadcasting places. Consequently, anyone who would not observe the rule will be subjected to criminal prosecution and fines ranging from 3,500 to 75,000 euros. Retweets also would be reprimanded as anyone retweeting votes estimates would be treated as an accomplice.
The authorities are, notably, concerned that users will massively spread results estimations before 8 p.m., creating recalcitrant voters rushing to voting booths to try to reverse the trend in favor of their candidate. This would obvious harm the integrity of the election.
Although this fear cannot be set aside, it is unlikely that people will react in this way. The first polls offices close at 6 p.m. By the time the recounts start, and then are sent to institutes to calculate the first estimates and refer them to those concerned, it might take a while. That would not leave enough time to cause a massive, last minute rush to voting polls.
The other concern is that it could also lead to a major consequence, particularly if the results are tight between candidates. In this case, any candidate who is not well-placed can file a complaint or even worse, seize the Constitutional Council to claim the election cancellation.
This has little chance of happening as the vote’s gaps will have to be very small to qualify. The plaintiff will also have to prove that it is the first messages that leaked on the networks that caused people’s rush to polling stations. And this is not an easy thing to do.
France has over 5.2 million Twitter users, but this figure is often confused with the number of Twitter members. Indeed, only 8% of internet users have a Twitter account, most of them belong to companies.
…to a single closure time and blocking Twitter. The threat is taken seriously by the Interior Ministry, to the point that it even considered a single closure time of all voting stations. But this plan was dropped as small municipalities challenged it. In fact, voting stations in big cities stay open until 8 p.m. while they close at 6 p.m. in small ones due to their population size.
Twitter blocking was also suggested, and although there are no official plans to block access to the internet, social networks will be closely monitored said to the Ministry.
Nevertheless the risk remains, and foreign media (mostly Belgian and Swiss) have already announced their intention to unveil the election results before the French media. In response, the surveys commission has warned that “From the moment the information is broadcasted on the French territory, the offense is committed,” thus subjecting them to prosecution too. But that would surely not stop them.
With the explosion of social networks among the general public, the question that authorities should address is the applicability of the rule itself in today's age.