On May 5, 2017, the French political scene was upended by what became known as MacronLeaks, a cache of more than 21,000 emails hacked from Emmanuel Macron’s political associates. It was two days before the final round of voting in the presidential election and just hours before a legally mandated election-news blackout was set to begin: prime time to try to spread rumor and scandal on French social media. Attributed to Russian hackers, who used bots to promote the material on Twitter, Facebook, and 4chan, the leak was seized upon by supporters of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. The leak, which helped spread unsubstantiated rumors of financial impropriety by Macron, didn’t help Le Pen close her substantial gap with Macron, but it became an important event in the fight over online disinformation. After winning the presidency, Macron promised a regulatory crackdown, pushing through a law that allowed judges to order the removal of “fake news” during elections. But France, at that time, was also busy pushing disinformation of its own—albeit in another continent.
When Macron was elected, France was three years into Operation Barkhane, a wide-reaching military campaign to rid Mali and other countries in Africa’s Sahel region of jihadists loyal to the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups. Like any counterinsurgency campaign, dealing with propaganda and disinformation are core parts of Barkhane. But in this case, the producer of fake news appears to be members of the French military, who, according to a recent report from Facebook, are flooding francophone African Facebook pages, especially in Mali and the Central African Republic, with disinformation designed to boost France’s reputation and defend Operation Barkhane. While it’s difficult to judge the relative success of the operation, the news has worried African politicians: CAR’s defense ministry said that disinformation had been “destabilizing the country,” which has experienced election-related violence, including the killing of United Nations peacekeepers.
While past reporting has suggested that western governments conduct online influence campaigns—with fake accounts, disinformation, and other trappings of digital propaganda—rarely have they been caught in the wild. Instead, journalists—and western governments—have tended to focus on the threat of Russia’s digital skullduggery. But the new Facebook report reveals that governments like France are potentially just as complicit in online influence campaigns, particularly when their perceived interests are challenged. Rather than being hapless victims of Russian digital aggression, countries like France seem to be learning how to master their own information operations—and applying those lessons to political conflicts overseas.
In a strange twist, the French influence operation—which Facebook and its partners have been careful to attribute to members of the French military and not to the state itself—has found itself butting up against an opposing Russian campaign of fake news and disinformation designed to boost Russia’s standing in the region. At times, accounts from the two sides went at each other on Facebook, accusing the other of being fake, posting derogatory comments and other forms of trolling. “When they clashed in CAR, they resembled one another,” says a recent report from Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory, both Facebook partners. (While the French government had reported suspicious Russian activity to Facebook, it was unaware that the social network was investigating France’s own behavior.)
The Graphika/Stanford document offers a revealing look at the present and future of online influence campaigns. It also helps to fill in a picture of just what governments are up to in trying to adapt old forms of propaganda to new technologies and digital social spaces. It connects the Russian operation to the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm run by Evgeny Prigozhin, who got his start catering for President Vladimir Putin before moving on to bigger things, like disinformation campaigns and mercenary work. The IRA has been a favored cutout for the Russian government, in part because it offers a level of deniability—albeit a rather specious one, with its activities now widely known. The IRA apparently paid locals to post on its behalf in Mali and CAR, imparting a thin veneer of grassroots authenticity. The pro-France campaign operated differently. In CAR, the posts, secretly authored by French military personnel pretending to be locals, tended to be less overtly political and focused more on Russian interference in the country. In Mali, fake accounts praised France for helping to fight jihadists.
Following Facebook’s example, the Graphika report avoids attributing the operation to the French government or military, especially regarding “institutional involvement”; instead, Graphika says that the operation is “linked to individuals with ties to the French military.” But in a statement to the regional news site Sahelien, the French defense ministry didn’t deny that the campaign had French military links. “We are not surprised by the Graphika study’s conclusions,” it said. “We are studying them and at this stage cannot attribute possible responsibilities.”
From Vietnam to North Africa, France has long seen propaganda and psychological operations as essential to counterinsurgency operations. In Algeria, for instance, France conducted “poison pen” operations, spreading rumors of false betrayals that caused rebel leaders to turn against one another. “According to longstanding French doctrine, there’s this understanding that things like shaping opinion are actually more important than killing anybody on the battlefield,” said Michael Shurkin, a senior analyst at RAND who has written about the history of French counterinsurgency policy. That’s why, Shurkin noted, official French military social media accounts often portray soldiers digging wells, doing development work and other efforts to win hearts and minds. That’s the bulk of their public outreach. But there’s another side, too. “The temptation is going to be there to start dabbling in more clandestine kinds of operations,” said Shurkin, referring to online influence campaigns.
By the time MacronLeaks appeared in 2017, after the dueling surprises of Brexit and Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, hacking, selective leaks, disinformation, and other forms of propagandistic meddling had become familiar parts of the political landscape. Determined to learn from its experiences, the French government commissioned a report on the problem of disinformation and outside political meddling. Published in 2018, the study offered an expansive look at information manipulation and the “existential” threat it represented for western democracies. (The 210-page document is also exceedingly French; a single paragraph on the epistemological crisis of online disinformation refers to Descartes, Derrida, and Foucault.)
The study’s principal villain was Russia. “There is no ‘Russophobia’ in the observation that all recent interference attempts in referenda (the Netherlands, Brexit, Catalonia) and elections (the United States, France, Germany) are tied, directly or indirectly, to Russia,” the study reads. “Our interlocutors among European authorities attribute 80% of influence efforts in Europe to Russia.” China, Iran, and jihadists also come in for a drubbing. Western states are mentioned only as being on the defensive. According to the authors, the “French position” is that “NATO’s role in this field should remain confined to the detection and analysis of and response to hostile operations targeting its activities.” But NATO members “also disagree over whether or not to try to ‘beat Russia at its own game,’ including within Russian-speaking communities, by spreading doubt about Moscow’s activities and goals.”
Clearly, French officials—or individuals “linked” to its military—have decided to beat Russia at its own game. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say that this game belongs to no one in particular. The Russian government may not be as skilled at information warfare as western political elites claim—Putin’s digital minions seem to get unmasked with regularity—but it’s certainly no friend to the electoral process. Still, it’s naive to think that western governments, particularly those fighting bloody generational wars of choice, are not guilty of the same behavior. (Macron, who favors tough talk about fighting the scourge of terrorism, has continued to support Barkhane while attempting to “reset” relations with France’s African allies.) It matters less if one side is considered to be nobly intentioned or merely looking out for its own craven strategic interests. Whether running crude meme-and-troll shops or more extensive influence campaigns designed to turn people away from terrorism—as the U.S. State Department has done—information warfare is now a common practice for western governments. For France’s leaders, MacronLeaks wasn’t just a warning shot across the bow of electoral democracy; it was an instruction manual.