Who’s winning on the digital battlefield?

On the eve of the French presidential elections, there’s a sudden flurry of activity on social media. A candidate’s name – #Macron – is trending on Twitter. So what’s the news? A large stash of Emmanuel Macron’s private emails have been hacked and leaked online.

Sound familiar?

That’s because it’s happened before. You probably remember last year’s debacle about Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails. This more than likely contributed to her losing the election to Donald Trump. If nothing else, it created an air of public suspicion around Clinton that did irreparable damage to her reputation. I still think back to that hacking event and recall it as a haze of rumours and misinformation; I was never totally clear what the core of the issue really was.

And in light of this latest development with France, I begin to wonder if confusion is actually the goal in all this. Perhaps we give whoever is behind this too much credit by assuming they’re actually pulling the strings of public opinion. What would be easier, and perhaps just as damaging, would be simply to sow the seeds of mistrust. With everyone at each others throats, arguing bitterly about what is and isn’t ‘fake news’, there’s room for the malevolent forces to continue their underhand work of sabotaging democracy. When journalists digging deep to report the truth on something can so easily have their work discredited as ‘fake news’ by none other than the US president himself, we really are veering into a disturbing new reality.

Who is actually responsible for this mischief? Sources point to a Russian hacking group known, among a variety of other names, as “Fancy Bear”. It’s the same group said to be responsible for hacking Hillary Clinton’s emails last year. “The key goals and objectives of the campaign appear to be to undermine Macron’s presidential candidacy and cast doubt on the democratic electoral process in general,” said Vitali Kremez, director of research at Flashpoint, a business risk intelligence company in New York, in an interview with the New York Times.

We should not underestimate the abilities of Russia in this arena. Dmitri Alperovitch, of CrowdStrike, told the MIT Technology Review that Russia ‘gets the true nature of the battlefield’ in a way the West does not. “They’ve been thinking about this for a very long time,” he said. “It actually goes at least as far back as the Tsarist era in the 1860s, when they created one of the first modern intelligence agencies, the Okhranka.” So Russia has been doing this sort of thing for decades, but the rise of digital offers the perfect new landscape for even deeper subterfuge.

But there’s one ray of hope; and that’s in how the French media has responded to the Macron email leak so far; by not reporting on the contents of it. This seems a smart move. Part of French law requires candidates to stop campaigning between midnight on Friday to when the polls close at 8pm on Sunday. Candidates are forbidden to give media interviews or issue statements. The timing of the email hack was likely designed to coincide with this, in an attempt to release the emails while Macron was unable to respond. But denying the fake news trolls the oxygen of media publicity cuts the head off the snake; removing much of its potential to harm. The same goes for terrorist incidents. ‘Propaganda of the deed’ as terrorism was once known, relies on shock and awe to achieve its ends. In an ‘always-on’ digital society this effect is massively amplified and completely fake incidents can even be instigated, by anyone anywhere. If the media had denied the ‘oxygen of publicity’ to groups like Isis from the very beginning, the world might be less messy today.

The emergence of Isis fuelled the rise of the far-right, giving white supremacists and ultraconservatives the opportunity to rise up and gain power under the guise of ‘protecting’ the nation from threat. Of course that ‘threat’ is constantly portrayed as emanating from Islam and Muslims. And so the cycle continues. But the example of France is certainly a promising one. The election outcome will reveal if it actually worked. Perhaps going forward, these issues could be mitigated by a more scrupulous mainstream media, one that’s less desperate for ‘clicks’ to ensure its survival, along with citizen journalism collectives such as Bellingcat, to shed light on old issues and reveal new cracks in existing narratives.

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