RUSSIA has set its sights on European elections and has already stepped up activity in France to boost the chances of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen becoming president.
That’s according to French intelligence, politicians and political experts who say a Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign is attempting to skew the results using fake news.
UK-based think tank RUSI international director Jonathan Eyal said “hostile” efforts have begun with efforts to discredit independent candidate Emmanuel Macron gaining traction.
“It’s the kind of black art propaganda which consists of websites planting nasty stories about Macron in the hope of getting these stories traction so they end up in the public discourse,” he told news.com.au about a recent story claiming Macron was in a secret gay relationship with a French journalist.
“There is absolutely no evidence for this allegation. The fingerprints on this story are entirely Russian. It was circulated by Russian networks … it’s the same kind of toxic stuff you have seen in the US, [stories] planted in social networks with a chorus of bots retweeting it and saying ‘what does the candidate say about that?”
“It’s clear and direct evidence of a concerted policy immediately directed at Macron the moment he became a serious candidate precisely because he is the one candidate not desired by the Kremlin.”
The centrist Macron and his En Marche! party has become a late contender for the French presidency given the collapse of the Republican field and widespread dissatisfaction with the socialist government under Francois Hollande. He is expected to face pro-Russian candidate Marine Le Pen, of the National Front, in the second round of the vote due in May.
However his private life and marriage to his former teacher Brigitte Trogneaux, 56, who is nearly 20 years his senior, are in the spotlight following the stories circulating online.
En Marche! secretary-general Richard Ferrand called for intervention to stop misinformation spreading, saying “the Americans saw it but it came too late” after CIA reports Russia had intervened in the US election on an “unprecedented” scale.
“Two big media outlets belonging to the Russian state (TV network) Russia Today and Sputnik spread fake news on a daily basis, and then they are picked up, quoted and influence the democratic (process),” he said.
Russia Today denied the allegations, saying: “It seems that it has become acceptable to level such serious charges at Russia Today without presenting any evidence to substantiate them, as well as to apply this ‘fake news’ label to any reporting that one might simply find unfavourable.”
EUROPE STEPS UP THE FIGHT
But efforts to stop the spread of false information are being taken seriously by French intelligence and the European Union working to fight Russian disinformation.
Last week it emerged French security forces will brief the President about Russian bots backing Marine Le Pen because of her favourable views towards Russia. The National Front leader has previously dismissed CIA reports of Russian influence in the US election as a “conspiracy theory” and loans made to her party by a Russian bank are under investigation.
The EU is also stepping up funding to fight fake news which it fears could wreak havoc on election results in the Netherlands, France and Germany all due this year.
The East Strat Com task force, which launched in March 2015 to fight Russian disinformation, has found more than 2500 examples of fake stories in 18 languages in the last 15 months, it claims.
This month it will launch Cross Check in France — a collaboration between Google News and 17 French newsrooms to check content and debunk myths before they become embedded in the discourse.
Mr Eyal said awareness of fake news has led to some debate over whether Moscow will have to become more “sophisticated”. However, for now, he claims it remains the most effective way of undermining the democratic process and aiding pro-Russian leaders in the west.
“The Russians believe what they do has eminent deniability. Nobody can prove that this chorus of spurious websites can be traced back to Moscow and the risk is very small for them.”
He said it’s also valuable for what would be the ultimate jewel in the crown: Germany.
“Germany is the jackpot as far as Mr Putin is concerned. The Russians have realised if they have a friendly leader in Germany they will succeed in basically paralysing the EU decision making from the inside.”
“The effort to knock off Angela Merkel will be huge.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry has been contacted for comment.