Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Why hackers failed to sway the French vote for president

Rachel Donadio

May 9, 2017

PARIS — French readers awoke Monday to headlines about its young president-elect, Emmanuel Macron, and his decisive defeat of the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

What they did not find were details of the “massive” hacking attack on the Macron campaign that was announced late Friday night.

The hacking occurred just before the start of a 44-hour ban on campaigning and broadcast media coverage of the election, lifted only when the final polling stations closed Sunday night, and some Macron supporters initially feared that his inability to respond could be devastating on the eve of voting.

News of the hacking lit up social media, especially in the United States, where the attack echoed one on the Democratic National Committee last year, and where far-right activists have joined together to spread extremist messages in Europe.

But in France, the leak did not get much traction. It certainly did not appear to give an edge to Le Pen, who won 33.9 per cent to Macron’s 66.1 per cent on Sunday. The hacking operation was met, instead, with silence, disdain and even scorn. Why?

First, French news outlets respected the blackout. The documents landed at the 11th hour, without time for journalists to scrutinise them properly before the ban went into effect.

Second, the news media heeded an admonition by the government’s campaign regulatory body not to publish false news. The Macron campaign said that fake documents had been mixed in with authentic ones.

But there was yet another crucial factor — France does not have an equivalent to the thriving tabloid culture in Britain or the robust right-wing broadcast media in the United States.

“We don’t have a Fox News in France,” said Johan Hufnagel, managing editor of the leftist daily Libération. “There’s no broadcaster with a wide audience and personalities who build this up and try to use it for their own agendas.”

Hufnagel said that Libération would take time to evaluate and verify the leaked documents before writing articles about them. In Saturday’s edition, Libération traced how news of the hacked documents had spread across the internet.

But after the blackout ended Sunday night, French news outlets reported little to no information about the leaked documents. Most said only that the French authorities had opened an investigation.

That reticence stretched across the landscape of newspapers in France, regardless of political leaning — including Le Monde, the country’s’s leading daily, which generally takes a center-left stance, and the conservative daily Le Figaro.

Several weekly newsmagazines — the conservative Le Point, the centrist L’Express and the left-leaning L’Obs — also held back.
The Macron campaign has said little about the hacking and leaks beyond a statement late Friday night — just minutes before the blackout began — describing the operation as “massive and coordinated” and an effort to destabilize French democracy.

For now, it appears the attack turned up mostly mundane documents. Although the coverage has hardly been comprehensive, no real smoking guns have been uncovered.

“The good news is that there was an attempt at destabilization that didn’t work,” said Céline Pigalle, the top editor at BFM-TV, a private broadcaster. “The elements weren’t strong enough. But what would have happened if they had been?”

Pigalle said the late-breaking document dump provided a reason to revise the news blackout law. It was created to give citizens time to reflect before voting, but in the era of social media, it gives anyone with a Twitter account an edge over France’s respected news outlets.

“It denies the world as it exists today, when social media don’t stop,” she said. “What happens now is that we’ll dive into the hacking and the documents at the same time."

The National Front, Le Pen’s party, has a vexed relationship with the mainstream news media, which it has at once scorned and used.

Le Pen and her aides have at times floated conspiracy theories, asserting — without evidence — that Macron had an offshore bank account, for instance. But her campaign did not have enough time after news of the hacking attack became public to seize on any damaging findings.

Just before the campaign blackout deadline, a senior National Front official, Florian Philippot, said on Twitter: “Will Macron leaks teach us things that investigative journalism deliberately killed? It’s shocking, this shipwreck of democracy.”

But his message came across as a last-minute act of desperation. On a popular morning radio show on France Inter on Monday, the journalist Léa Salamé asked a National Front official, Nicolas Bay, about Philippot’s post on Twitter.

Bay said that the methods used to diffuse the Macron campaign documents might be questionable, but that it was important to discover their contents. The conversation ended there.

The National Front does not have the equivalent of a Bill O’Reilly or a Sean Hannity, right-wing commentators who helped shore up Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

While French commentators such as Éric Zemmour, a regular on radio and television who has a column in Le Figaro, have fed into a sense of decline and insecurity that the National Front tried to capitalise on politically, neither he nor other so-called neo-reactionary commentators endorsed the far-right party.

In the United States, reaction to the Macron leaks was more animated, and Hillary Clinton took to Twitter to comment. “Victory for Macron, for France, the EU, & the world. Defeat to those interfering w/democracy. (But the media says I can’t talk about that).”

The New York Times

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