In the days, weeks and months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a coordinated network of automated social media profiles known as "bots" helped spread what has become known as "fake news" — a term that was popularized once the intelligence community announced their consensus belief that the Kremlin interfered with the election to an unprecedented degree.
Now, experts are looking to the upcoming 7 May 2017 French election runoff with fear that the Russian government is using the same methods that succeeded in fomenting information chaos in the U.S. could similarly disrupt other high-stakes contests in Western democracies.
Experts say the Kremlin aims to weaken such countries from the inside out by waging disinformation campaigns that exploit existing social tensions and promote mistrust in institutions of government and knowledge. Most recently, they have done so with what intelligence experts call "active measures" or cyber activities that spread disinformation to support anti-establishment candidates — like President Donald Trump and France's extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Such candidates have been buoyed by growing nativist and protectionist sentiments from current global trends in migration that have created an anti-immigrant climate in Europe, the United States and other relatively stable countries where people have in large numbers sought refuge from violence and war in places like Syria.
Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Russian hack, Clint Watts, a former FBI counterterrorism agent and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, described Russia's aims with these activities:
Russian active measures hope to topple democracies through the pursuit of five complementary objectives: One, undermine citizen confidence in democratic governance; two, foment, exacerbate divisive political fissures; three, erode trust between citizens and elected officials and their institutions; four, popularize Russian policy agendas within foreign populations; and five, create general distrust or confusion over information sources by blurring the lines between fact and fiction — a very pertinent issue today in our country.
From these objectives the Kremlin can crumble democracies from the inside out, achieving two key milestones: One, the dissolution of the European Union; and two, the break-up of NATO.
Already, Americans may recognize familiar patterns emerging across the Atlantic Ocean. Kremlin-backed news agency Sputnik's chief Paris bureau editor Nataliya Novikova advocated her own version of "alternative facts" when quoted in a 17 April 2017 New York Times report about Russia elbowing its way into French politics by saying, "There are many different truths. There has to be a pluralism of truth.”
The Wall Street Journal reported on 24 April 2017 that the campaign of Le Pen's chief opponent, Emmanuel Macron, has been targeted by a pro-Kremlin hacking group with a phishing infiltration attempt similar to the one that penetrated Hillary Clinton's campaign manager John Podesta's e-mail system:
As part of the attack, hackers set up multiple internet addresses that mimicked those of the campaign’s own servers in an attempt to lure Mr. Macron’s staffers into turning over their network passwords, said Feike Hacquebord, a senior threat researcher for Tokyo-based Trend Micro and the author of the report, a copy of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Mounir Mahjoubi, digital director of Mr. Macron’s campaign, confirmed the attempted hacking, saying that several staffers had received emails leading to the fake websites. The phishing emails were quickly identified and blocked, and it was unlikely others went undetected, Mr. Mahjoubi said.
An Oxford University study published on 22 April 2017 found that French voters are being hit with automated political content generated by "bots" like Americans were — but French social media users are more likely to share legitimate news stories. Yet the "junk news" making the rounds in France, according to the study, has a political agenda:
This content [junk news] includes various forms of propaganda and ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan, or conspiratorial political news and information. Much of this content is deliberately produced false reporting. It seeks to persuade readers about the moral virtues or failings of organizations, causes or people and presents commentary as a news product. This content is produced by organizations that do not employ professional journalists, and the content uses
attention grabbing techniques, lots of pictures, moving images, excessive capitalization, ad hominem attacks, emotionally charged words and pictures, unsafe generalizations and other logical fallacies.
After Macron and Le Pen emerged as the frontrunners in the upcoming runoff, their former opponents united in opposition to Le Pen and extremism, but as the New York Times reports, her National Front party has grown in influence — much like relatively extreme viewpoints of both Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and now-President Trump surged unexpectedly in 2016. Defeated center-right Républicains party candidate François Fillon said, "Extremism can only bring unhappiness and division. There is no choice but to vote against the far right."
Bob Murray, a national security fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told us that bots coordinate fake news and propaganda by drumming up noise on social media and forcing a topic to trend, which then causes the news media to respond. It results in a chain reaction of disinformation bouncing between bot accounts, Kremlin-backed news agencies like Sputnik and RT that spread propaganda, then finding its way to what intelligence experts call "white" and "gray" sites, or English-language conspiratorial web sites like InfoWars or Zero Hedge — then, sometimes, to the mainstream news.
These web sites, Murray said, may not even be aware they are sharing the Kremlin's propaganda or disinformation, but have a general disregard for the truth and are reliable tools for such purposes.
White sites are in the context of fake news, sites that don’t have an agenda of pushing fake news but are incidental messangers — like Breitbart will pick up news stories that aren’t validated, that they haven't done due diligence [reporting] on, so they end up being propagators of fake news.
Gray sites are sites that carry a mix of real news of fake news and they have some propensity to deliberately push fake news as part of the entertainment value of the site — like InfoWars is something that will push news for a political agenda if not for entertainment and where truthfulness is secondary to throwing red meat to the base.
According to McClatchy, FBI investigators are reviewing the roles that far-right web sites in the U.S. played in facilitating Russia's propaganda campaign:
Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as “bots,” to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.
The bots’ end products were largely millions of Twitter and Facebook posts carrying links to stories on conservative internet sites such as Breitbart News and InfoWars, as well as on the Kremlin-backed RT News and Sputnik News, the sources said. Some of the stories were false or mixed fact and fiction, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the bot attacks are part of an FBI-led investigation into a multifaceted Russian operation to influence last year’s elections.
Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.
Murray stressed that while far-right politicians appear to have benefited from Russian hacking efforts in 2016 and possibly 2017 elections, the Kremlin doesn't favor either political agenda. Instead, its primary goal is destabilization:
The use of the sites certainly is apolitical — it’s politically agnostic, it’s a tool. The Russians are not interested in one party or the other, it’s more about the delegitimization of democratic institutions and Western multinational institutions. I’m sure they have contingency plans regardless of who wins.
Murray called the global push that played out in the United States and seems to be repeating in France "scary" — perhaps the dark logical conclusion of what has become an unavoidably technology-heavy society.