Ever since the U.S. election was called for Donald Trump, experts who closely follow the geopolitics of information worried that France would be next. There’s a preponderance of evidence to suggest that Vladimir Putin’s Russia (which has been tampering with political processes in Europe for years) seriously stepped up its game in 2016, using a range of tactics to undermine the centrist status quo represented by the U.K. remaining in the EU and Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in favor of the right-wing white nationalism embodied by Brexit and Donald Trump. We know how that went. And so, since November, many of us have held our breath at the prospect of Marine Le Pen—the scion of France’s leading far-right family, who has documented financial ties to the Kremlin and whose election would have threatened the post–World War II international system—becoming France’s next president.
We can exhale now Emmanuel Macron has soundly defeated Le Pen at the polls, but we were right to clench our chests: Late Friday night, less than two days before the vote, Macron’s campaign announced it had been the victim of a massive hacking attack a few weeks before, the fruits of which were posted to Pastebin. The link was then shared on 4Chan and by WikiLeaks’ Twitter account, among other places. The announcement came just before the start of a legally mandated blackout that prohibits the media from publishing polls, interviews, or other information about the election or candidates for 40 hours before the vote. In a press release, the Macron team said that the leaked cache contained both hacked documents that revealed nothing more than the ordinary function of a political campaign as well as falsified documents.
As Slate’s French sister site reported, France’s National Presidential Campaign Control Commission asked the media to refrain from reporting on the contents of the alleged leaks until after polls closed on Sunday night, and the French media seem to have complied. International outlets and ordinary internet users weren’t bound by the ban, of course, but so far there doesn’t seem to be anything remotely exciting in the 9GB data dump. Surely whoever posted the documents on Pastebin knew that. So why do it?
The timing was particularly odd. It seems unlikely the culprits wouldn’t know about the 40-hour blackout, especially if it was indeed the Russian government, as many are speculating. Whether or not it was meant to actually impact the election, we should take it as a warning to voters and public officials across the world’s democracies that while attempts to tank Macron’s campaign may not have been successful, the information war is far from over. It’s being waged on more fronts than ever, with increasing professionalization (Russia’s defense ministry has a new department of information warfare) and cross-border coordination. The endgame is to spread networked authoritarianism, a political system seen in places like China and Russia that uses the power of the internet to carefully control the expression of dissent in a way that gives the impression of limited freedom of expression without actually allowing dissent to gain traction or challenge kleptocratic elites’ hold on power. The goal is a “managed democracy” for the digital age.
Putin, Trump, and Le Pen are all cut from the same cloth: They’re authoritarian xenophobes whose greatest fear is a functioning free press to keep them in check. Baiting the media with non-news like the contents of hacked emails (petty office feuds! risotto recipes!) pollutes the news cycle with so much drivel that audiences either lose sight of the serious issues at stake, stop paying attention, or become so disillusioned with politics that they start thinking all the candidates are the same, so voting doesn’t matter. Meanwhile, the far-right gets its voters out, takes power, and starts stripping society for parts.
Now that Macron has won, what do we do next? First, do as we French do and have some champagne.
Second, fight like hell for our open societies and for the values and institutions that underpin them, starting with the free, responsible press. Zeynep Tufekci’s exhortation to French journalists this weekend not to fall in the same trap the U.S. media did nailed it: Repeating misinformation, even to debunk it, only amplifies it and allows it to gain traction. Unlike insider leaks from whistle-blowers, the real story with these adversarial hacks isn’t usually the content of the stolen documents (Phineas Fisher’s hacks of FinFisher and Hacking Team stand out as exceptions). The fact of the hack is the story—along with who, what, where, when, and why. This doesn’t mean that journalists should ignore the content of hacked documents completely, and the line between leaks and hacks may be blurry at times. No one ever said this would be easy. A good rule of thumb might be: If you received a press release with the information, would it be newsworthy or would you roll your eyes at the idea that some PR department was trying to get you to write such an inane story?
Macron’s electoral victory is only a reprieve in the larger struggle over geopolitics, economics, and contested values like human rights, democracy, and pluralism. It was likely aided by several factors that differentiate France from the U.S. and U.K.’s media and political environments. Notably, the two-round voting system, the existence of multiple political parties, the public funding of campaigns, a shorter campaign season, and the strict regulation of electioneering may have helped make this election more resilient to information warfare. It is worth considering whether some of these features can be emulated in other countries.
Another major difference is that cable news channels and social networks like Twitter and Facebook don’t play nearly as big of a role in French politics as they do in the U.S. or even the U.K. By now it’s conventional wisdom to say that cable news ignores substantive arguments about the issues in favor of obsessing over the campaign circus. Much of what airs on cable news also tends to be so insubstantial, sensationalistic, or blatantly partisan that it pushes would-be voters toward social media as a source of information, which not only contributes to so-called filter bubbles (though how important those really are is disputed) but may also expose them to intentional manipulation by sophisticated big-data analytics firms with ties to the military-industrial complex as well as white nationalist billionaires. (Can you even imagine writing such a sentence before 2016?)
In a world where communication transcends borders faster than the speed of thought, figuring out how to balance the needs of democracy with freedom of expression and access to information may well be the challenge of a generation. Let’s breathe a sigh of relief that the world as we know it won’t fall apart this week, top off that champagne, and get to work. Germany votes in September.