Politics can be so interesting. Not the seedy back and forth that so often plays out in the press (this weeks “eye of the tiger”/”na na na na” congressional house moment). It’s the inner workings and strategy that go into making a democracy work that makes me curious and that I find incredibly interesting. That is why watching the French presidential election has been kind of awesome. The French showed us how to fight for democracy and win.
This election has made some things super clear. Vladimir Putin has positioned himself to become the king/queen maker of the far-right. It’s an interesting strategy. Once you have the far-right, it’s not that great a distance between it and co-opting the not so far-right, conservatives. In the U.S. at least, we are now seeing a clear disinterest by the Republican Party to investigate how exactly the Russians helped Trump (and in turn them) get into office. The rest of the world is watching the U.S. and waiting for someone from the “right” to do the right thing. What Putin and his big data private army must know is that once folks get a taste of the power that comes from “winning”, regardless of how and at what cost to democracy, they are as good as in.
That is why the lead up to the French election is so interesting and important. In the last 14 days we have learned a lot about what defending democracy looks like. In the coming week, I will point to a number of pro-active steps being taken in light of election hacking.
The Alt-Right Message and its Fake News Army
“I hope that we do not learn that you have an offshore account in the Bahamas.” It might have seemed to have been an off-the-cuff comment by Marine Le Pen in what was widely reported as a contentious debate with Emmanuel Macron. However, within minutes news stories began appearing on Russian and right-wing websites. Using the hashtag #MacronGate, some 7000 Twitter users immediately shared images of two documents that supposedly identified Macron as the owner of an offshore account in the Caribbean.
There were two main responses:
1) The Crosscheck fact-check initiative, that I wrote about in my April 22 Narrative, quickly debunked the rumors. What is really interesting though is that two hours prior to the debate, Crosscheck identified users on a forum known to have shared fake news in the U.S. elections who were seemingly preparing for the debate comment.
2) Emmanuel Macron during the debate immediately cited it as a defamatory comment and later on France’s Inter radio made clear, “I’ve never had an account in any tax haven. Le Pen is behind this. She has an internet army mobilizing.” He made good on his claim by using France’s libel laws to file a complaint. Prosecutors in Paris publicly opened a probe in response to the complaint.
Two important arms of a democracy, the press and the judiciary, became important tools in the defense arsenal. The fact-checking media collectives, and the lodging of an immediate legal claim (in this instance) were successful approaches in halting the false claim from having a widespread impact.
The Campaign Hacks/Break-Ins
And, of course, the hack. On Friday night here in the U.S., and just hours prior to the campaigning blackout imposed by French electoral law, somebody (Fancy Bear, Pawn Storm, Apt28) dumped 9 gigabytes of stolen emails and documents from the Emmanuel Macron campaign on the dark web site 4Chan. These were quickly picked up by WikiLeaks who rather quickly touted their veracity. The Macron campaign had alerted the media, minutes before the blackout, that it had been hacked and that most of the documents were fakes.
Here was Macron’s pre-emptive response to potential hacking:
The Daily Beast reports that part of the Macron campaign strategy against Fancy Bear was to sign on to phishing pages and plant bogus information. “You can flood these [phishing] addresses with multiple passwords and logins, true ones, false ones, so the people behind them use up a lot of time trying to figure them out.” Mounir Mahjoubi, the head of Macron’s digital team told the Daily Beast.
Macron’s digital team seems to have outsmarted the hackers in this case, as the veracity of the documents were always in question, and the French authorities claimed they would prosecute anyone who shared false documents in order to sway the election.
Macron’s Big Victory
The above are just two examples of what the French did to defend their democracy which may have been an even bigger story than the outcome of French election itself.
Not for nothing… the outcome of yesterday’s election mapped out from commune to commune as shown by the NYTimes. Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency over the right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen in a 66.1% to 33.9% sweeping victory that resounded across the country. The result bolstered the European Union and showed the limits of Ms. Le Pen’s far-right message.
It may have also demonstrated the cracks in the far-right war against democracy. Stay tuned.
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