Political campaigns are not fair play. As the presidential office has a lot of power in France, the competition is fierce and it is not unusual to have surprises along the way. It would be business as usual, except the fact that this year the French campaign is like no other. Why is that?
First, its results will have consequences beyond its borders. If Marine Le Pen, the populist leader wins, she will probably withdraw France from the EU and the eurozone. This would shake the European integration project and could trigger a financial crisis. Second, there is a tangible possibility of elections being manipulated by special interests or foreign powers. “I think that without doubt there is concern here (in France) of outside “influences” manipulating the electorate” says Lisa Regan, a Parisian working in the financial sector.
Recent history shows that there are two ways of manipulating the public opinion during the election period. First, cyberattacks. Second, dis- or misinformation campaign (disinformation is intentional while misinformation implies an error). In France, these patterns prevail.
Emmanuel Macron’s movement En Marche! has already suffered more than 4,000 hacking attacks. Sputnik News reported that Macron was backed by a “gay lobby” and was a “US agent” for banks. In March, webpage lesoir.info (do not confuse it with the Belgian outlet lesoir.be) announced that Saudi Arabia is financing Macron’s campaign up to 30%. None of this is fair or true, but news manipulation is not always about fabricating stories but about confusing people who cannot tell the difference. On 1 March, a false twitter account of the journal Le Parisien was spreading the news that the conservative candidate François Fillon has stepped down from the presidential race, which again was not correct. Faced with charges that he gave his wife and children fake jobs, François Fillon should quit but in fact, he has just confirmed that he would fight until the end. To sum up, while Marine Le Pen, Russia’s front runner, gets neutral or positive headlines in above-mentioned outlets, Mr. Macron has experienced an increased number of disinformation. It shows that he is among the most prominent targets of the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign in Europe these days.
Is the French electorate vulnerable to manipulation of news and election results? Yes and No. Let’s start with the positive scenario that the French are resistant to those tricks. Why is that?
First, the government has started to act. As opposed to the US, where the administration did not admit for a long time of foreign interference, the French officials have already publicly stated that this threat exists and blamed Russia for attacking Macron. Today, not only the country's anti-cyberattacks agency, ANSSI, is on high alert but on 7 March, the government disallowed French citizens living abroad (around 1,8 million people) from voting electronically in the legislative elections, which is a clear demonstration that the government is worried that the vote can be hacked.
Second, France has a strong preference for traditional outlets: TV, radio, print and the Russian outlets are not very popular. Alternative media such as Sputnik’s French site or Russia Today France are not frequented so much. According to Digital News Report 2016 by the Reuters Institute, the research centre at Oxford University, they are not among the 16 most popular hits. If you google “election presidentielle 2017 France sondage” or “cyberattaque Macron”, the above-mentioned outlets do no appear in the first ten search pages.
Third, media and the NGOs have already taken measures to counter “fake news” through educational and fact-checking tools (similar to Globsec Information war monitor for Central Europe in Slovakia). Those are for example CrossCheck, or Le Monde’s Le Décodex. CrossCheck brings together journalists from 17 newsrooms who find and verify content circulating online, whether it is photographs, videos, memes, comments or news sites. Le Décodex is a growing database of sites that were spotted as “real,” or “fake”. Everyone can go and check if the webpage is reliable. Le Monde is active on Twitter with @crosscheck and publishes “disinformation review” where it corrects the facts.
Yes, the French just like the Americans and the Brits can be played upon. There are unfortunately several reasons to believe it too.
First, a struggle for the truth could be lost. Only 32% of French still trust in the news, which again following the Reuters Institute, is one of the lowest in Europe (to compare with 72% of Slovaks following the Globsec Trends 2016). Only 25% of people agree that the news is free from political (25%) or commercial (22%) influence. Additionally, the preference for traditional media is now dipping, especially with the young. Thus, more and more people turn to social media for finding, reading/watching, and sharing news. Facebook is the most important network (42%; under 35 – 52%), followed by YouTube (21%), and Twitter (8%, and under 35 – 12%). This of course creates the threats that due to algorithmic selection of news introduced by Facebook or Google, the biased information can by spread or special interests reinforced. Marine Le Pen’s National Front has already for some time coordinated hashtags, memes and animated videos across social-media platforms. According to BuzzFeed, a news website, Le Pen’s backers helped also Trump to post comments on the French news sites, which created an unrealistic picture of the discussion and support.
Will the truth prevail?
“In the first round, you vote with your heart, in the second round, you vote with head,” says one French expression. I hope this is the case also this year. It is hardly possible now to assess how the new cyberattacks or disinformation campaign will look like in April, and if it can be prevented. The preference (still) for the traditional outlets and the cross-checking webpages and education on information may prevent French from selecting a wrong candidate. Even if they follow their heart (often full of passion and pessimism) in the first round, I hope they vote with the head in the second round. This was the case in 2002 when "le Pacte Républicain", where the right and the left joined their forces for the good of the country, worked just perfectly. The left-wing voters followed Jacques Chirac, thanks to which he won with over 82% against Jean-Marie Le Pen.
GLOBSEC Policy Institute