This Week in Info War

Macron calls out Putin over Kremlin disinformation: Lessons learned

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On 29 May, French President Emmanuel Macron called Russian state-backed media outlets RT and Sputnik “agents of influence” that spread falsehoods about him during his election campaign —all while standing next to a visibly uncomfortable Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference. Macron said the two media organizations “did not behave like press outlets, but like organs of influence, of propaganda” which spread “serious falsehoods.” He added: “I will never give in to that.” 

Aides said that in the two leaders’ meetings, the French leader raised “all issues, including state-sponsored cyber hacking.” During the recent presidential campaign, the Macron camp blamed Russia for a “massive” cyber attack just days before the final vote in his runoff against Marine Le Pen, the Kremlin’s preferred candidate. In the end, Macron’s final tally was four to five percentage points higher than predicted by the final public opinion polls, suggesting that Moscow’s public interference in the campaign may have backfired.

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Kremlin-owned RT, rejected Macron’s allegations and repeated her past claim that Macron has been unable to come up with a single example of slander or fake news about him. Speaking at a 1 June forum in St. Petersburg, Putin denied that his government was involved in hacking Western election campaigns, but said it was “theoretically possible” that “patriotic “ Moscow hackers might interfere in such campaigns.

Macron’s frankness was widely applauded in the West, which has been on the political defensive in the face of the Kremlin’s information aggression and has had trouble crafting a coordinated response. Several factors in the French election may have contributed to that country’s apparent success in dealing with the Russian information threat.

First, the president of France is elected directly, making it more difficult to target key constituencies to sway the result.

Second, France’s media landscape is dominated by more traditional sources of news than in the United States—independent media, professional content and information from official sources.

Third, the fake news campaigns against Macron were “afflicted by cultural clumsiness and tactical missteps,” according to cyber experts. Moscow’s reliance on a hashtag campaign originating in far-right American accounts may have turned off nationalist French voters.

Fourth, the leaking of a trove of files just hours before the beginning of a state-enforced news blackout may have deprived the fake news campaign of oxygen.

Fifth, French voters’ widespread awareness of the fake news phenomenon may have also made a difference.

Finally, the Macron campaign tried to impede the hack attempt by responding to phishing emails with false logins and taking other measures, though some hackers still managed to get through.

Despite its setback in France, the Kremlin is unlikely to give up easily. French parliamentary elections are to take place in June, as are more Russian disinformation operations. Moscow also has cultural and religious levers at its disposal. Of note, France has the largest Russian Orthodox community in Western Europe. After his press conference with Macron, Putin visited the newly constructed Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Center near the Seine that includes the Holy Trinity Cathedral.