CounterPropaganda · Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

Successfully Countering Russian Electoral Interference

Interesting French brief just released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).   Wake-up call, especially for anyone who still thinks the Russians didn’t materially affect the 2016 elections here.  More important, a pretty good synopsis for how to prevent another round of meddling this year.

Many options are left out, however. It does not seem like either author is experienced with information warfare, information operations, strategic communications, or public relations. Their input, while good, is limited. 

One point deserves attention, however, and I have mixed feelings about what is presented.  “Lesson 8: Beat Hackers at Their Own Game” is a section highlighting where outlandishly fake emails were inserted into the system, thus undermining any resultant leaks. This appears to be good advice and worth considering. The title, however, is misleading. This is not about beating hackers, it is about gaining a modicum of control over the information when it is leaked.  Bottom line, this is a genius idea but needs to be presented properly.

Additionally, the briefing is six pages long, so there is no room to discuss anything in detail. This document represents a good starting point for any efforts to counter Russian efforts at influencing elections or countering Russian information warfare.

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Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer
CSIS Briefs

June 21, 2018

The Issue

The 2017 French presidential election remains the clearest failed attempt by a foreign entity to influence an electoral process in recent years. Taking aim at presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, Russian interference succeeded neither in interfering with the election nor in antagonizing French society. This Brief examines how France successfully withstood the disinformation and interference; how this failed attempt can be explained; and, looking to the future, what lessons can be learned from this experience?


On Friday, May 5, 2017—just two days before the second and final round of the French presidential elections—gigabytes of data hacked from Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign team were released online. Months earlier an orchestrated disinformation campaign against the Macron presidential campaign had already begun. The so-called Macron Leaks—a combination of real emails and forgeries—could have been yet another example of a long list of attempts by Russia to interfere in a high-stakes transatlantic election. But the 2017 French presidential election may be the exception that proves the rule: it is the most clearly failed attempt. The Kremlin neither succeeded in interfering with the presidential election nor in dividing French society.

As the United States prepares to hold nationwide elections on November 6, 2018, the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, has already warned in February of this year that “We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.” Calling Russian influence “pervasive,” Director Coats further noted that “The Russians have a strategy that goes well beyond what is happening in the United States,” he said. “While they have historically tried to do these types of things, clearly in 2016 they upped their game. They took advantage, a sophisticated advantage of social media. They are doing that not only in the United States but . . . throughout Europe and perhaps elsewhere.” Because the United States is not well prepared for future elections, it is necessary to study the past.

This is why the 2017 French presidential election is a particularly important election to study and why we highlight French scholar Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer’s groundbreaking report on the Macron Leaks.1 Drawing in part upon the work of CSIS visiting fellow Boris Toucas,2 Vilmer’s forthcoming report will examine what happened during the French presidential election; who orchestrated the affair; how it was successfully countered; and what lessons can be learned. This Brief, which is part of the forthcoming CSIS comprehensive report, sums up the main lessons learned.

Myriad structural factors, luck, as well as effective anticipation and reaction by the Macron campaign staff, government and civil society, and especially the mainstream media, combined to successfully resist Russian malign influence.

– Heather A. Conley, CSIS