Russia’s Fake News Crusade Is Still Pushing For Le Pen

Kremlin-backed news sites at home and abroad have long favored the pro-Russia French presidential candidate

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Apr 24, 2017 at 1:10 PM ET

A day after the tumultuous first round of French presidential elections, the French-language version of the Sputnik news site sarcastically asked: “How could Kremlin agents trained by the best KGB commandos have failed to steal the French vote and let Macron beat the pro-Putin candidates?”

They were referring to the first-round win of Emmanuel Macron, the independent-centrist candidate who’s been sharply critical of Russia, as proof of what they say is the West’s (and, personally, Macron’s) concern over Russian interference in democratic elections. RT, a state-backed news outlet criticized in French Macron’s “bling-bling” in celebrating his win Sunday night at a brasserie in the Parisian neighborhood of Montparnasse. In Russian however, the paper published a sober article, urging its readers to “hold out hope for a miracle.” The far-right, pro-Russian Marine Le Pen will face off against Macron in the second round of voting on May 7.

Much of Russia’s mainstream news considered the result a setback for Moscow’s ambitions. Macron, the anti-establishment centrist, clinched the majority (23.7 percent) of the votes. But the Russian news machine continues to be committed to Le Pen, who took 21.5 percent of the votes. Many say that even if she wins the second round of voting, her extremist National Front party will not be able to cobble together the necessary parliamentary majority.

“I hope the people of France will not let themselves be deceived again and will not choose the next puppet of globalists for the president,” said 21-year-old Maria Katasonova, a Russian Twitter star who is also a parliamentary assistant to Yevgeny Fyodorov, a far-right member of the Rodina party. Katasonova recently returned from a heavily-tweeted visit to France, where she met Le Pen and posted selfies with the hashtag #Marine2017.

In the months leading up to the elections, many in France have accused Russia of directing its well-oiled fake news machine at the French elections, which were closely watched around the world as a test for the future of surging populism and for the European Union. Emmanuel Macron, who campaigned to remain in the EU, accused Russia of hacking his campaign team. He said the Russian media was churning out fake news stories with the intent to discredit him and derail his campaign.

“For several weeks now, RT [formerly Russia Today] and SputnikNews have been trying to spread the most defamatory rumors about Emmanuel Macron, Macron’s aide said in an interview with Le Monde.  L’Express magazine reported on Monday that a forthcoming report by the computer security company Trend Micro detailed the activities of Fancy Bear, a hacking team suspected of having Russian ties, in targeting Macron and his teamThey are the same group accused of the cyber-attack against the Democratic Party during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Allegations that Russia had meddled in France were “primitive and wrong,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated Monday.

The French-language branches of RT and Sputnik, launched in France in 2015 and 2014 respectively, have fiercely promoted the Kremlin’s favored candidates: Marine Le Pen, who has borrowed millions of euros from Russia, and Francois Fillon, who in 2015 was paid 50,000 euros ($54,000) in exchange for organizing a meeting between a Lebanese billionaire, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Total SA Chief Executive Officer Patrick Pouyanne.

“Given the current climate, it is important to give Russia’s version” on international affairs, RT France president Irakly Gachechiladze told Le Monde when it first launched.

That version included fake polls showing Le Pen and Francois Fillon to be leading, and Macron lagging behind, prompting France to issue a warning against polls deemed illegitimate under French law. The Russian sites on Monday also reported that the results of Sunday’s elections could be due to voter fraud, citing French journalist Julien Neny, who tweeted that he had received a Fillon ballot already placed in his envelope at his local voting station (French voters cast their ballots with paper slips, counted manually). Ballots of two different candidates in the same envelope would nullify the vote, according to French voting law.

Neny said he returned the envelope, was given a new one, and that the station said that no similar incident had been reported. Sputnik called it “disturbing.”

Oxford University researchers found that intentionally misleading or inaccurate information permeated up to a quarter of the political links shared on Twitter in France. They were “ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial,” which presented views with logical flaws and often presented opinions as fact, and were propagated by a number of “highly automated accounts” that grew in size over the previous month, the report found.

“While the outlets themselves are less active than their rivals, the same cannot be said of the accounts which follow them,” the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab wrote earlier this month on Medium. “A machine scan of all posts retweeting or mentioning @RTenfrancais between February 28 and March 30 collected a total of 74,000 tweets, posted by 15,335 users.”

The research company Bakamo found that many of the fake news accounts had been “exposed to Russian influence,” and that the majority of sources sharing on social media favored anti-EU candidates both on the far right and the far left: Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Melenchon and Francois Fillon.

Russia’s potential double-track strategy of hacking and fake news dispersion have elicited a French response, which will continue in high gear as the country prepares for the second round of voting next month.

“In France like anywhere else, we have had fake stories, hoaxes and rumors for ages. The new thing, I think, is the fact that more and more people are believing this,” Samuel Laurent, the head of Le Monde’s Les Decodeurs initiative, told Vocativ. Le Monde, along with 36 other French and international newspapers teamed up with Google and the Crosscheck organization, to collaborate on detecting fake information which could influence the elections.

Laurent added that French “‘alt-right’ network of websites (we call it “fascisphère”), are doing the same as elsewhere, but they tend to be more and more trusted.”

Among the most explosive recent hoaxes traced directly to Russian parliamentary member Nicolas Dhuicq, a member of Parliament, a board member in the pro-Putin French organization French-Russian Dialogue Association. He told Sputnik in February that Macron was a closet homosexual supported by a “very rich gay lobby.”

“Macron is a guy who is a chouchou, a darling, of the French media, which is owned by only a few people, as we all know,” Dhuicq told Sputnik. “One of the guys who backs him is famous businessman Pierre Berge, a business partner and long-time lover of Yves Saint Laurent, who is openly homosexual and advocates gay marriage … This says it all.”

The rumor lost steam relatively quickly in France, but many Russians have taken it up again since Sunday’s election results were published. On Monday, Maria Katasonova, the Twitter star, used a derogatory term for homosexuals when referring to Macron. She was one of many Russians tweeting offensive, homophobic comments about Macron over the past day.

Katasonova said she saw Macron’s win as “Hollande’s revenge” but added that nothing had been decided. Russia and the world “had two weeks [of hard work] ahead of them,” she said.

Caption: Maria Katasonova’s post, following the French election results.