Russia and the French presidential election: The Kremlin interference

21 April 2017
EUobserver.com Brussels

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen meets Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow on 24 March.
French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen meets Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow on 24 March.

By flooding French social media with fake news and openly supporting far-right leader Marine Le Pen, the Kremlin is weighing in for the most anti-EU candidate in the 23 April runoff.

Almost one in four of the internet links shared by French users of social media in the run-up to elections were related to fake news, much of which favoured anti-EU candidates and showed traces of Russian influence, according to a new study. The survey, by a UK-based firm, Bakamo, published on 19 April, looked at 800 websites and almost 8 million links shared between 1 November and 4 April.

19.2 percent of links related to media that did not “adhere to journalistic standards” and that expressed “radical opinions … to craft a disruptive narrative” fell under what the study called the “reframe” category. A further 5 percent related to “narratives [that were] often mythical, almost theological in nature” or discussed “conspiracy theories” fell under what it called the “alternative” section.

The sources shared in these categories favoured anti-EU candidates both on the far right and the far left: Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Francois Asselineau, and Philippe Poutou. They also favoured Francois Fillon, a centre-right candidate who is friendly toward Russia.

Bakamo’s research found that one in five sources in the reframe section were exposed to influence by Russian state media known for spreading anti-EU disinformation, such as RT or Sputnik, , and that one out of two sources in the alternative section had Russian roots. “The analysis only identified foreign influence connected with Russia. No other foreign source of influence was detected”, Bakamo said.

The study said that “established sources of political news” were “still driving public discourse” and were “being shared in greater proportion than all other non-traditional media sources”. They also noted that while the far-left candidate Melenchon’s campaign team often shared bogus material, Le Pen’s team mostly propagated its own content on sites such as Twitter or Facebook.

But it added that social media users in the reframe category were “very prolific” and “very engaged”, sharing links almost twice as many times as those who followed mainstream sources. Pierre Haski, a French journalist who took part in the research, noted that there was another “worrying trend as election day nears”. He said there was a “growing gap among citizens” based on “news reliability and respect for professional and ethical [journalistic] rules” rather than on political affiliation.

The gap meant that people increasingly did not agree on basic facts as opposed to political opinions and that those who no longer trusted traditional media were impervious to debunking efforts, such as Les Décodeurs, a group of fact-checkers working with Le Monde, a French newspaper of record.

Bakamo’s study said the main political themes in the reframe category were those that championed French identity and attacked Islam. Minor themes also attacked globalisation, big corporations, and US or EU “imperialism”. It said the influence of Russian sources was the strongest in the French identity, anti-Islam, and anti-globalisation areas, as well as in the areas of “confusion” and “conspiratorial/anti-system” sources shared in the alternative segment.

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