In early April, the Russian state media outlet Sputnik published a story suggesting Emmanuel Macron, centrist candidate for the French presidency, was “a U.S. agent” and possibly “acting in the interests of the U.S. financial market in France.” Another article, published in French, claimed Macron’s campaign was being financed by Saudi Arabia — and despite being completely inaccurate, it generated 10,000 likes, shares, and comments on Facebook.
The Russian fake-media machine has trained its sights on the French elections, and there are just two days to go in what has been a roller-coaster campaign. Opinion polls have the leading candidates, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, left-wing veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon, conservative François Fillon, and centrist, pro-Europe candidate Emmanuel Macron separated by the polling margin of error ahead of the Sunday vote.
But Russian state media has a clear preference: Stop Macron by any means necessary.
The effort to slow down Macron has been conducted by both state-owned Russian media outlets like RT and Sputnik — both of whom set up French outposts in recent years — as well as less official channels like far-right blogs, Twitter bots, and troll farms, all of which are used to amplify the message from Moscow.
The surge of propaganda was triggered when conservative Fillon slipped in the polls as the result of a corruption scandal involving his wife. “When Fillon’s poll ratings slumped and Emmanuel Macron, who is much more pro-EU and pro-U.S., surged, the Kremlin media jumped to broadcast attacks on Macron,” Ben Nimmo, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told VICE News.
Disinformation spread by Russian state media outlets has been amplified on social media using a complex network of bots which the Digital Forensic Research Lab this week showed can be linked directly back to the Twitter accounts of both RT and Sputnik in France.
The overarching goal of this campaign, as well as campaigns targeting last year’s U.S. elections, the U.K.’s Brexit vote, March’s Dutch elections, and likely the upcoming elections in the U.K. and Germany, is to destabilize organizations like the European Union and NATO as well as undermine public trust and confidence in democracy itself.
With up to one-third of the electorate still deciding who they’ll vote for on Sunday, Russia has a real opportunity to sway the first leg of France’s election. Of the four leading candidates, Russia would be happy with Le Pen, Melenchon, or Fillon winning, since each has shown an inclination to support Putin’s views.
On Sunday, the French public will vote in the first round of the presidential election. If one candidate receives over 50 percent of the vote, they will automatically be elected — though this is highly unlikely and has never happened before. What’s more likely to happen is that the two candidates who top the poll on Sunday will face a runoff on May 7.
It’s pretty much a tossup at the moment as to who is going to win through Sunday’s vote, but one thing seems certain: At least one of the Kremlin’s favored candidates will be in the runoff, meaning the Russian fake media campaign is just getting started.
All across Europe, there are efforts to counter the Russian disinformation campaigns, which began long before Donald Trump ever shouted the term “fake news.” In 2014, the Kremlin’s information war was used to ”inject disinformation and sow confusion” during its conflict with the Ukraine in a bid to convince the world that Moscow was in the right.
In response, the European Union established the East Stratcom Task Force to highlight and debunk Russian disinformation. In the space of 18 months, a dozen full-time employees, together with a network of 400 volunteers, have found more than 2,500 examples in over a dozen languages of stories that contradict publicly available facts.
East Stratcom doesn’t talk publicly about its work, but an EU official who has knowledge of the group’s efforts, told VICE News that estimating the size of Russia’s network was almost impossible. “There are too many elements involved in this massive disinformation campaign. We are talking about thousands and thousands of different channels in dozens of languages.”
The Russian disinformation machine is a highly sophisticated and multifaceted organization, with a reported budget of over $1 billion. It ranges from official organs of the Kremlin, like state-owned television stations RT and Sputnik, to right-wing blogs that claim to be independent outlets but actually just rehash the Kremlin’s rhetoric. It also includes armies of Twitter bots and troll farms that help amplify that message.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long been the No. 1 target for the Kremlin — something that will likely only increase ahead of September’s elections. “In France, as well as in Germany, you will always see the same pattern,” the EU official said. “You will see denigrating the people who are opposing the Kremlin’s interests, and promoting the people who are in line with the Kremlin’s interests. In the case of France, it will be denigrating Emmanuel Macron.”
The two articles mentioned at the beginning of this piece, along with dozens of others, were shown to be completely false by Crosscheck, a journalism project set up by First Draft News and encompassing news organizations around Europe to help fact-check news stories related to the French election.
Sam Dubberly, who runs Crosscheck, told VICE News that of the dozens of stories his project has debunked, Macron has been featured more than other any candidate, while the topics of security, religion, and immigration have dominated. And yet, there is little conclusive proof of who is behind the false narratives.
“We have nothing to suggest [Russian interference] at the moment, but we have nothing that doesn’t suggest it either,” Dubberly said.
It’s very difficult to accurately gauge the impact a disinformation campaign has had — especially before the vote takes place. “I think it is only afterwards when we will be able to do some actual analysis on what we have found and where it came from, that we will be able to answer that question,” Dubberly said.
“You can never say how influential a campaign has been until the result is in,” Nimmo said, adding, “So far, it doesn’t seem as if the Kremlin campaign has been particularly effective.”
The mere presence of Russia’s hand, however, may be enough to make a difference, especially in such a close race. The terror attack on the Champs Elysees Thursday provides yet another wild card as the first leg of the campaign draws to a close.
If it turns out that Melenchon, Le Pen, or Fillon is chosen to take on Macron in the May 7 runoff, we can expect to see the Kremlin crank up its fake new machine in order to sway the final vote.
“The crucial question is who will go through to the second round,” Nimmo said. “If it’s Le Pen against Fillon, I wouldn’t expect to see much further Kremlin activity. If it’s Le Pen against Macron, I’d expect to see much more.”