By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – It’s widely suspected that Russia tried to influence the French presidential elections in May, following their success in helping swing the United States presidential elections towards their favoured candidate, Donald J. Trump, in November 2016. But the extent of that effort — engineered in part through the distribution of ‘fake news’ on social media — is only now becoming known, thanks in part to the efforts of Saper Vedere, a communications firm based in Brussels.
A blueprint for election subversion, the carefully prepared line of attack used the two Russian state-sponsored media outlets of Sputnik and Russia Today to spread anti-Macron conspiracy theories originally hatched on Twitter and other social media platforms.
At the “Digital Festival” here on 1 June, Saper Vedere (Latin for “knowing how to see”) co-founder Alexandre Alaphilippe and Nicolas Vanderbeist, doctoral candidate at the Université Catholique de Louvain, laid out step-by-step the plan that Russian media used in the attempt to push the French electorate towards Marine Le Pen – the Russia-friendly leader of France’s National Front – and away from eventual winner Emmanuel Macron.
Vanderbeist described various elements of a typical attack plan. The first is known as infiltration.
“A month before the election, you create a supporter account, ostensibly supporting the candidate you will eventually attack, in this case Macron,” he said. “Every day, you re-tweet what Macron says, and you recruit other fans of Macron [as a way of building legitimacy among Macron supporters]. Then, you start recruiting fans of your opponent [Le Pen]. You announce that you no longer support your opponent, and use a fake news story to justify withdrawing your support.”
Vanderbeist and Alaphilippe showed conference participants a slide of one such fake news story that claimed Macron’s campaign was receiving much of its funding from Saudi Arabia. The story was posted to a site crafted to closely resemble the platform of one of France’s leading news outlets.
A second element: the “riposte (or re-post) team”. To push a fake news story, Vanderbeist said its creators typically all agree to be online at a certain time. They then retweet the story as much as possible in order to make it a trending topic.
A third element: fake accounts. “You buy followers,” Vanderbeist said. “A hundred thousand followers, a lot of bot followers, many of them from Arabic countries.” To illustrate, he put up a slide portraying screen shots of Arabic-language bots re-tweeting negative fake news stories about Macron.
Having covered some of the means used to push fake news, who then spreads it?
“For the past three months, we’ve analysed the propagation of fake news,” Vanderbeist said: “The most active users are around [the media outlets of] Sputnik and Russia Today.”
Accounts identifying with the Front National, for example, had more links with Russia Today than with any other media outlet. “The more you shared rumours about the French elections attacking Macron, the greater the chance you were a Russian propaganda propagator,” Vanderbeist said.
According to Saper Vedere, a common strategy emerged during the French presidential campaign.
It unfolded as follows: a fake news story echoing one of about 12 false rumours was placed on a social media platform that brought together Le Pen supporters and accounts affiliated with the two Russian media outlets. Fake accounts, both human and bot, would begin tweeting the rumour with the goal of making it a trending topic. If the traffic grew high enough, either outlet would pick up the story, presenting it as viable news. The key moment would come when a respectable ring-wing news outlet would retweet a link to the false report. The story thus having entered mainstream discourse, other more traditional outlets would then often feel obliged to refer to it, if only to say what other outlets were reporting.
One prominent example during the campaign was the rumour that Macron had opened a hidden account in the Bahamas, presumably for tax evasion. During their live presidential debate, Le Pen herself broached the topic, accusing Macron of having such an account.
Interestingly, the social media push behind the Bahamas rumour was not Russia, but rather Jack Posobiec, an American alt-right Trump supporter and conspiracy theorist. The very day that Le Pen mentioned Macron’s supposed Bahamas account, Posobiec used the discussion board “4chan” to distribute documents that he claimed proved Macron had opened a Bahamas account. The signature on the documents was later determined not to be Macron’s. Posobiec was recently given a pass to attend daily White House press briefings.
Vanderbeist and Alaphilippe credited the 24-hour media blackout before the election, as well as the Macron team’s fast responses to the rumours, for minimising their impact. “Fake news needs to be debunked live before it hits the media community,” Vanderbeist said.
But he also cautioned that, at the moment it becomes widespread, the best strategy for countering fake news is not to debunk it, which takes time, but simply to point to its source since if people know the provenance of a news story is dubious, they are less likely to trust it.
“Show not that the info is false, but where it’s coming from,” he said. Ranking the best strategies from most important to least, he advocated: “analysing, monitoring, shielding through sourcing, and then fact-checking” and added that such tasks are all the more important in view of upcoming elections in Italy and Germany.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to say how the US will respond, if it does. The daily reality-show drama of the Trump administration is an extraordinary opportunity cost, leaving Americans distracted. Any real push-back would have to start from the US president himself, but he may not have the knowledge or the inclination to move against Russia, whatever the real reasons behind any inaction on his part.
That leaves the Europeans. Individual nation-states – particularly France – have plenty of heart and skill when it comes to espionage, be it cyber or information-warfare in general. Those qualities were on full display when the newly elected Macron confronted Putin over fake news during a shared press conference on 29 May, when he labelled Sputnik and Russia Today “agents of influence and propaganda”.
But however cathartic, confrontation does not equal cost. Putin must know that if he continues interfering with Western elections, he will suffer a painful cost, although it remains to be determined what sort of cost that could be.