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Russia behind fake news bot campaign to empower French far right

Emmanuel Macron is buying votes for €100. Elton John says the EU is crumbling. Beyoncé thinks the French president is a puppet. The far right will help France win back its independence.

These are just some of the narratives and fake claims spun by Russia’s intricate disinformation network ahead of France’s Sunday parliamentary elections, according to French officials and cyber security experts.

Analysis of a range of sources reveals a co-ordinated campaign of disinformation that has smeared Mr Macron, while promoting Eurosceptic far-right leaders Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella, who have voiced opposition to Ukraine.

i has identified various tools Russia has used to disseminate propaganda, ranging from fake websites and X/Twitter bots spreading false narratives, to X and Facebook ads that have been used to spread fake claims about Mr Macron. This disinformation is often picked up by Russian state media and even promoted by Russian embassies, in a co-ordinated attempt to undermine French democracy.

One tactic Russia has used is fake websites masquerading as legitimate news sources, which target UK, US and French voters with disinformation.

A website masquerading as French news outlet Le Point under a similar URL published an article saying Nato was preventing France from becoming a global power and that “an opposition victory” would help France regain its independence.

The claim was then circulated on X by President Vladimir Putin’s network of Russian bots, according to Bot Blocker/Anti-bot for Navalny, an organisation that exposes Russian social media attacks.

The X post claims Ms Le Pen will refuse to allow Mr Macron to determine the strategy for Ukraine and defence issues.

Another fake website posing as French newspaper Le Parisien claimed Mr Bardella and the RN (National Rally party) “wants to restore French Independence”, while “Macron delivers France to pro-American globalists”, adding: “Jordan Bardella proposes a return of the origins of sovereignty.”

But these websites do not just voice support for the far right, they actively spread disinformation about Mr Macron. A fake website mimicking the president’s party, Ensemble, claimed he and the party were buying votes for €100 for the snap election.

Named FranceEnColere, the website spread the disinformation in what experts call attempted “narrative laundering” — when Russia attempts to surface fake news into its mainstream media.

This website belongs to a pro-Kremlin fake media network operated by John Dougan — a former US Marine who was given asylum by the Russian state, according to EUvsDisinfo.

i has previously reported how Mr Dougan is believed to run a network of 167 fake news English language websites on behalf of a Russian interference operation previously funded and overseen by former Putin-ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group killed in a plane crash last August.

The network has links to Project Lakhta, a Russian interference operation previously funded and overseen by Prigozhin that targets US, European, and Ukrainian audiences, according to NewsGuard – a team that monitors misinformation – citing European intelligence and a report from the US Treasury Department.

The false claim spread by the Russian fake news website was then spread through Russian Telegram channels, before it was distributed via Russian bots on X on Monday, according to Bot Blocker.

The claim then arrived on News Front News, a news website tied to the Russian security services and Kremlin funding, according to the US State Department report.

According to figures from Bot Blocker, there have been 108 articles from pro-Russian influence operation targeting France since the EU election in early June, 63 times mentioning Mr Macron where 59 times have portrayed him negatively, while National Rally, Ms Le Pen and Mr Bardella have been mentioned 62 times and never in a negative context.

Anna George, who researches online disinformation at the Oxford Internet Institute, told i Russia supports far-right candidates because “they are polarising and cause division”.

“These candidates tend to be anti-establishment and perhaps Russia hopes this will cause tensions between democratic nations working with each other, and perhaps they are hoping that these candidates will be more open to conversations with Russia compared to other candidates which might have a harder stance against Russia.”

It comes after the discovery of five X accounts that allegedly spread “Kremlin narratives” and supported the leader of Reform UK, Nigel Farage. According to the investigation, the Russian authorities created bots to incite hatred, popularise conspiracy theories and “praise” Mr Putin among British audiences.

Disinformation also appears to have spread to X via ads, raising questions about social media companies’ failures to clamp down on Russian influencing on elections.

Meanwhile, Facebook parent company Meta approved and delivered to thousands of French accounts ads calling to vote for far-right candidates on Sunday, with xenophobic and anti-EU narratives, which also linked to spoofed domains impersonating news media, according to AI Forensics.

Another aspect of this online warfare by pro-Russian bots is the sharing of images with fake celebrity quotes. According to Russian bots, Taylor Swift has called the upcoming Olympics in France a political and shameful project, Beyoncé said Macron is a puppet controlled by other countries and Elton John thinks the “EU is crumbling.”

While these claims are ludicrous, Russia’s attempts to sow seeds of discontent stretch beyond the online world. European security agencies believe that acts of sabotage have been carried out around the continent by Russian intelligence before being amplified by Mr Putin’s army of bots.

On the morning of 14 May, about 20 spray-painted red hand symbols were discovered on the wall of a Holocaust memorial in Paris, which is dedicated to honouring individuals who saved Jews from persecution during the Nazi occupation of France.

Mr Macron condemned the act of “odious antisemitism”. He wrote on X that the vandalism damaged “the memory” of those who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

About a week after the incident, investigators in France said they believed the vandalism was ordered by Russian security services who allegedly recruited two Bulgarian citizens identified by the police as suspects.

Bot Blocker claimed that on the day of the incident a swathe of Russian bots took to X to express disgust at the desecration. The fake accounts, posing as ordinary social media users, blamed Mr Macron and his government “for not doing enough to fight antisemitism”.

About 1,000 bots linked to Russia relayed photos of graffitied Stars of David in Paris and its suburbs, while a French intelligence report said the Russian intelligence agency FSB ordered the tagging, as well as subsequent vandalism of a memorial to those who helped rescue Jews from the Holocaust.

Experts say such Russian disinformation tactics are to flood the information ecosystem with lots of narratives, even conflicting one, to sow confusion. While Moscow has often attempted to conceal such acts, in recent days it has gone public with its support for the far right.

“The people of France are seeking a sovereign foreign policy that serves their national interests & a break from the dictate of Washington & Brussels,” Russia’s foreign ministry wrote on Wednesday in a social media post, accompanied by a photo of Ms Le Pen.

“French officials won’t be able to ignore these profound shifts in the attitudes of the vast majority of citizens,” added the post, which was signed by the ministry’s deputy spokesperson, Andrei Nastasin.



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