DISINFORMATIONFrance Fights Disinformation as Olympics, Elections Loom

By Lisa Louis

Published 12 April 2024

With the Paris Olympics and Paralympics approaching — not to mention the European elections in June — France is ramping up its fight against information manipulation. EU officials are also on guard.

On May 5, 2017, two days before his runoff against the nationalist Marine Le Pen, emails from the campaign of Emmanuel Macron, then competing in his first election for the French presidency, were leaked online in what his team called “a massive and coordinated attack to undermine democracy.” Not only that, but fabricated emails were mixed in with genuine ones to mislead voters.

At that moment, we understood how much of a threat disinformation is,” said Marc-Antoine Brillant, the head of Viginum, a 50-member department established in 2021 to battle foreign digital interference. “After the 2017 election, people across various ministries started working on the matter, but, by 2021, it had become clear we needed a dedicated division to fight disinformation,” Brillant told DW.

We had seen online information manipulation play an ever-bigger role during different crises — like the yellow vest demonstrations for more social justice starting in late 2018, the COVID-19 pandemic and the deadly terror attack on history teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020,” he added.

The division regularly discloses disinformation efforts such as the “Doppelgänger” campaign, through which pro-Russia agents have tried to gather support for the invasion of Ukraine in seven EU countries by publishing information on websites that resemble established media.

Another example is the Portal Kombat network: 193 websites established through a company based on the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula that have spread pro-Russia propaganda in France, Germany and Poland.

Viginum is a democratic, transparent way within the rule of law to fight against attempts to manipulate information,” said Brillant.

The division’s efforts will be tested in the months leading up to June’s elections to the European Parliament and the Olympics and Paralympics in Paris from July to September.

Resilience Through Awareness 
France was one of the first countries to adopt a systemic approach to fighting disinformation, said Jiore Craig, digital integrity expert at the London-based think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Craig has been looking at information manipulation campaigns during elections worldwide since 2013.

Throughout the Brexit vote, after which the UK left the EU, and the 2016 US presidential elections, it became clear that disinformation is focused on undermining democracy,” Craig told DW.

The EU parliamentary elections 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic then had us realize that fact checking was no longer enough,” she added. “We needed a systemic approach to understand which network actors were spreading falsehoods.”