The Battle Beyond the Games: Narrative Attacks Targeting the 2024 Summer Olympics

The top narrative attacks targeting the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics reveal coordinated disinformation campaigns.

Sarah Boutboul on June 5, 2024

As anticipation builds for the 2024 Summer Olympics, so do the challenges. Like so many other events, this year’s contest is at the center of controversies and narrative attacks caused by misinformation and disinformation campaigns. Blackbird.AI’s RAV3N Research Team closely monitored online discussions using the Constellation Narrative Intelligence Platform and Compass by Blackbird.AI to gain insights into how online could potentially harm the institution and the host country’s reputation. 

On November 13, 2023, Viginum – the French government’s technical and operational service responsible for vigilance and protection against foreign digital interference – reported that it suspected a network of Azerbaijani state-affiliated threat actors of having carried out a disinformation campaign aimed at damaging France’s reputation and its ability to host the next Olympic Games. This operation allegedly arose in July 2023 – a year before the event – amid heightened diplomatic tensions between Paris and Baku as the French government openly supported Armenia in light of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. 

This activity graph displays a social media narrative related to calls to boycott the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. It shows a significant spike on June 9 and towards the latter half of July 2023. 

The Blackbird.AI RAV3N Narrative Intelligence team investigated further the existence of harmful narratives targeting the Paris 2024 Olympics from July 2023 until May 2024, particularly those calling for a boycott of the event on mainstream social media platforms – where such adverse discussions often enjoy heightened visibility facilitated by both organic and inauthentic bot amplification.

Within this specific timeframe, online posts not only triggered multiple engagement spikes by negatively portraying the state of human rights and security in France as indicated by the Viginum report, but also drew the International Olympic Committee (IOC) into more comprehensive information operations linked to the ongoing war in Ukraine and the Israel-Palestine conflict – using hashtag campaigns and inauthentic manipulation. At the same time, other lines of conversation targeted the Committee regarding the participation of transgender athletes or the French government for relying on illegal workers to build the event’s infrastructures. Other unfounded narratives attacked Macron’s administration for allegedly spending French taxpayers’ money to fund Paris 2024, asking pregnant women to give birth prematurely before the event and mishandling the capital’s hygiene standards. The Constellation Dashboard detected moderate to high levels of toxic content, bot-like activity, and unusual content propagation patterns in these discussions.

Learn More: What Is Narrative Risk?

This network graph displays interactions between entities calling to boycott Paris 2024, with dark red nodes indicating bot-like activity – revealing the significant presence of inauthentic manipulation in the conversation, as Blackbird.AI’s Constellation Platform shows.

The Blackbird.AI RAV3N team has identified several high-risk or potentially misleading narratives that were discussed across the internet.

Narrative 1: France provides cardboard beds to discourage sexual encounters during the games

As at the Tokyo Olympics, athletes’ beds at the Paris 2024 will consist of a cardboard slatted base and a mattress that can be adjusted to suit individual morphology and needs. Again this year, online publications reacted by spreading unfounded claims that athletes will be sleeping in these cardboard beds built to prevent them from having sex. Yet the beds were never designed for this purpose, as the director of the company that designed them explained that these cardboard beds were made so that three or four people could jump on it in the interest of environmental sustainability. 

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI.

Learn More: Why Government Leaders and Policymakers Need Narrative Risk Intelligence

Narrative 2: Boycott Paris 2024 because France is a cruel and discriminatory country 

Featuring images of previous riots in Paris, many used a variety of hashtags such as #Paris2024 and #BoycottParis24 to propagate and amplify claims that French citizens are victims of growing islamophobia, discriminatory aggressions as well as a fascist drift driven by the government – thus justifying the alleged need to boycott the upcoming Olympics Games. Specifically, they leveraged the recent murder of Nahel Merzouk – a French 17-year-old of Moroccan and Algerian descent who was killed by a police officer in June 2023 – as well as large-scale violent demonstrations following his death that were put down by the police to bolster their argument. Meanwhile, other posts circulated links to online petitions to relocate the event. They asserted that the values of equality and diversity promoted by the Olympics are incompatible with those of France, allegedly persecuting minority groups. Our Constellation software indicated that nearly 15% of users were affiliated with bot-like activity, indicating an attempt to amplify this narrative inorganically.

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI.

Narrative 3: Boycott Paris 2024 for potentially hosting Russian and Belarusian athletes 

The largest conversation of this dataset – involving 29% of users identified as bots – targeted the IOC as “unethical” and “corrupt” for considering allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in the event, as IOC officials were then debating the issue and argued a total ban could be considered discrimination. Posts included portraits of Ukrainian athletes allegedly killed by Russian strikes and extensively circulated hashtags such as #BanRussianAthletes, #NoRussiaParis2024, #RussiaIsANaziState, #PutinIsaWarCriminal or #genocide, accusing the IOC – notably its President Thomas Bach – of privileging financial gains over morality. 

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI.

Learn More: Court-side seats to a tournament of misinformation and disinformation

Narrative 4: Boycott Paris 2024 for excluding Russia and Belarus from the competition

This counter-narrative was portrayed from the perspective that the IOC serves the West’s interests and lacks discernment between sports and politics. These claims were triggered on July 14, 2023, as the IOC announced that the two countries would not receive formal invitations to participate in the Olympic Games in Paris. Many bots framed this narrative under a dichotomy between the West and the “global South,” advocating for creating new Olympic Games made up of BRICS nations. These posts also called for solidarity with Russia and Belarus, accusing the IOC of corruption and of a “double standard” with the inclusion of athletes from Western countries allegedly perpetrating war crimes. 

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI.

Learn More: The World Economic Forum: Disinformation Is the #1 Global Risk

Narrative 5: Boycott Paris 2024 for building its event using modern slavery

Most French-language posts – including 14.3% displaying negative sentiment as shown by Constellation – shared that the city of Paris relied on many illegal workers to build the event’s infrastructures. A few of these posts asserted that dozens of workers had died on the construction site, denouncing alleged political and media silence on the issue.

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI.

Narrative 6: Boycott Paris 2024 if the IOC allows transgender athletes to compete

Others encouraged female athletes to refuse to compete against transgender individuals if they played in the same category, which they portrayed as a women’s rights initiative to prevent the alleged “extinction” of female victories due to unfair competition. This narrative emerged despite World Athletics’ official ban on transgender women who have undergone male puberty competing in women’s events. Although post volume related to this conversation was low, 40.5% of users were affiliated with bot-like activity. 

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI.

Learn More: Social Media Misinformation and Disinformation Attack Readiness and Response Checklist

Narrative 7: Boycott Paris 2024 if Israel is allowed to take part in the event

This narrative saw the largest engagement spike on April 19, with various posts calling for a boycott of the Olympics if the IOC did not ban Israel from the event. Circulating in English and French language, this conversation pointed to an alleged paradox between Israel’s participation in the event and the country’s involvement in bombing campaigns targeting Palestine. Most common rhetoric highlighted a perceived sense of injustice between Israel’s inclusion in the Olympics and Russia being invited under a neutral banner. 

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI.

Narrative 8: Boycott Paris 2024, as the French government asks pregnant women to induce premature deliveries 

This narrative again showed clear signs of bot-like behavior. It consisted of French-language accusations that the Ministry of Health had asked pregnant French women to give birth prematurely to avoid overloading hospitals during the Olympics – portrayed as an “appalling drift” for a country “once at the cutting edge of medicine.” Posts circulated this claim and a video deceptively labeled as a “TF1” story  – a popular French cable channel – to bolster the narrative’s credibility. According to the doctored video, women with due dates between 22 and 28 July should give birth before the opening ceremony to be reimbursed 50% of pregnancy-related medical costs or give birth “in other regions of France” and receive compensation of 25% of the amount spent on medical services.

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI.

Learn More: Narrative Risk Intelligence for Communications Teams

Narrative 9: Boycott Paris 2024, as the event is not safe due to poor hygiene conditions in the capital 

This conversation primarily consisted of recommendations not to attend the Olympics due to alleged bed bug outbreaks in Paris, which was repeatedly described as a dirty city. With high negative sentiment, posts also circulated claims of rat invasion and fecal matter in mineral water amid an event perceived as doomed to turn into an epic fail “without Russia’s help.” Similarly, a few posts denied the Kremlin’s potential influence in spreading disinformation regarding bed bug infestations in autumn 2023, asserting that poor hygienic conditions in France can only be attributed to alleged government incompetence.

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI.

This campaign to boycott the forthcoming Paris Olympics brought together many social media narratives affiliated with divergent ideologies with the common aim of targeting the ethical reputation of the IOC and damaging France’s image by sowing public mistrust in its ability to host the Olympics. This case study demonstrates that it is essential for organizations and governments hosting large-scale events visible worldwide to actively monitor public perception online to mitigate reputational risks and effectively control the narrative using Blackbird.AI’s Constellation Narrative Intelligence Platform and Compass by Blackbird.AI.

The narratives around this year’s Summer Olympics serve as a reminder of the power of misinformation and disinformation to shape public perception and the potential for disinformation to undermine even the most prestigious events. It is increasingly crucial for organizations and governments to monitor and address harmful narratives proactively. By leveraging advanced narrative intelligence tools like Compass by Blackbird.AI and the Constellation Narrative Intelligence Platform, leaders and decision-makers can effectively identify, analyze, and respond to the ever-evolving landscape of online narratives.

To learn more about how Blackbird.AI can help you in these situations, book a demo.

About Blackbird.AI

BLACKBIRD.AI protects organizations from narrative attacks created by misinformation and disinformation that cause financial and reputational harm. Powered by our AI-driven proprietary technology, including the Constellation narrative intelligence platform, RAV3N Risk LMM, Narrative Feed, and our RAV3N Narrative Intelligence and Research Team, Blackbird.AI provides a disruptive shift in how organizations can protect themselves from what the World Economic Forum called the #1 global risk in 2024.

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