It would have been difficult to fault France watchers in the Kremlin for overconfidence in January 2017. François Fillon, the leading candidate in the polls at the time, was a long-time contact of Vladimir Putin. Polling second was the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, whose National Front party ran on a platform of economic nationalism, repatriating power from Brussels, rapprochement with Moscow on Ukraine and Syria and rejecting immigration –all wish list items for Moscow. Trailing far behind were a smattering of left-wing candidates and an upstart former banker and minister from the wildly unpopular government of François Hollande who fashioned himself an outsider, promising to shake up France's staid political system.
Four months later -- after a corruption scandal sunk Fillon, a handful of wild debate performances from Le Pen and a seemingly endless campaign -- the outsider Emmanuel Macron was elected Président de la République. Macron's agenda seeks to achieve closer European integration, to reform the French economy and to take a hard line on Russia's involvement in Syria and its expansionist tendencies in Eastern Europe. In short, things could not have turned out worse for Moscow, which missed a chance to secure a–consistently–friendly government in a powerful western country. Did the Kremlin really step aside and let the French election run away from its preferred outcome?
We know the answer to be no, thanks to reporting during and after the campaign, which identified the usual calling cards of Russian influence in foreign elections: misleading media narratives and a campaign email hack. A vigilant French press and discerning voters prevented the influence effort from achieving success, but despite a high level of alert following reports of interference efforts in the U.S. election, the exact timing of the influence attempts still took observers by surprise.
Through the campaign season, Predata tested a number of different techniques to detect and anticipate Russian influence operations in real time based on anomalous signatures of digital traffic. One methodology–based on measuring the level of interest in Russian-language audiences in the French campaign and candidates–gave advance warning of all three major influence efforts in the later stages of the campaign. Another methodology–based on the salience of Russian-backed media outlets in France–revealed that French audiences reacted to major disinformation activities by researching their origins. Predata will build on these methodologies to monitor Russian interference efforts in upcoming European elections, notably in Germany and the Czech Republic.
Detecting Russian Influence Operations
The initial hypothesis was that Russian influence efforts would be preceded by anomalous levels of interest in the French election among Russian-language audiences. If that activity was driven by the size of the audience–chatter, in Predata parlance–it would be a sign that the French election figured prominently in the largely state-controlled media landscape. If the activity was driven by the level of audience interaction–what we call contestation–it would be a sign that Russian-language audiences were debating and revising the baseline truth on the campaign and the candidates.
Predata constructed a simple signal composed of Russian-language digital sources related to the French election, the individual candidates, and their parties in order to detect anomalous levels of interest. As illustrated in the figure below, all of the confirmed Russian influence efforts through the final phase of the campaign were preceded by spikes in the signal, with only one false positive.
Contestation around the two leading candidates, Macron and Le Pen, drove each of the major spikes in the Russian interest signal noted above. This pattern suggests that debate and revision of the baseline truth about the campaign and candidates was the digital marker that tended to precede new influence efforts. Ahead of the two events targeting Emmanuel Macron–the misinformation campaign in February on sexual history and the hack of his campaign email server in April–contestation around the candidate reached successive all-time highs. In the latter case, the peak in contestation was set off by a vandalizing edit to his Russian-language Wikipedia page, referring to Macron as a “philanderer”.
Though in hindsight the general consensus is that the French electorate was impervious to Moscow's attempts to influence their election, would it have been possible to anticipate that response in real time? To measure the reaction to Russian influence efforts, Predata monitored chatter–audience size–around sources related to Russian-backed media outlets in France. News services such as RT and Sputnik have ramped up their presence across Europe over the past year, and it is documented that there are deep connections between their editorial lines and Kremlin foreign policy priorities.
Following both of the major disinformation campaigns - each disseminated by either RT or Sputnik–French-language chatter around the Russian media outlets in France picked up. The chatter spikes suggest the French public researched the origins of the dubious claims. A reasonable hypothesis is that if the French were inclined to believe the misinformation, they would have been less likely to research the outlets. The RT and Sputnik signals tended to spike sequentially, indicative of the integrated media strategy used to spread disinformation: an article would appear on one outlet and then would be amplified on the other. Alternatively, increased attention on Russian-backed news outlets can be understood as a proxy for when their content permeated the French media landscape, a possible sign that a disinformation campaign was in progress.
Looking Forward to Germany
Heading into Germany's federal elections on September 24, Predata plans to apply these lessons learned from the French election to monitor Russian influence operations in real time. German politicians and security services are certainly aware of the threat, and the Kremlin may adjust its tactics. Still, tracking Russian and German digital attention offers the potential to unveil significant media campaigns orchestrated by Moscow.