Melissa Ryan is the author of Ctrl Alt Right Delete, a weekly newsletter devoted to understanding how Trump and his army of right wing supporters organize online. All opinions are her own.
Here’s what you need to know about last week’s presidential elections in France: Centrist Emmanuel Macron won, defeating right wing nationalist Marine Le Pen. Macron’s victory was seen as a defeat for a growing fascist movement. Far right activists in America and Kremlin operatives took an active interest in Le Pen’s campaign, just as they had with Donald Trump in 2016. Political observers around the world worried that a Le Pen victory would destabilize Europe. However French voters rejected Le Pen’s candidacy and by extension her extremist views.
The recent runoff election in France made front page news in America which is unusual, but we live in unusual times. Last summer the United Kingdom voted to exit the European Union via referendum (aka Brexit), and voters in the United States elected a president who promised to put “America First.” Far right parties are gaining momentum across the globe, and despite their nativist promises to voters, they’re working together to organize a global movement against globalism. The elections in France provided this far right movement with their next opportunity for victory.
Marine Le Pen, head of the French National Front, a far right nationalist political party, hoped to win an upset victory and become the Donald Trump of France, but those hopes were dashed when her opponent centrist Emmanuel Macron won in a landslide. The so-called alt-right in America, a force for Trump’s campaign online in 2016, did everything they could to boost Le Pen’s campaign, hoping that she could stun the world with a victory in the same vein as Trump. They failed.
The alt-right in America (I like to call them the Frog Squad, named for their unofficial mascot, Pepe) have been organizing in support of Le Pen’s candidacy for months. In January, Buzzfeed detailed how and where the Frog Squad were gathering online to make culturally appropriate memes and spread fake news in support of Le Pen’s candidacy. They’ve worked openly on 4chan, The_Donald subreddit, messaging platforms such as Dischord, even Google Docs. Reporters and activists observed this activity, and it caused so much concern that French media outlets collaborated with Google News Lab and an organization called First Draft News to create Cross Check: a massive effort to verify news stories and give voters in France the tools to verify the news they saw in their social media feeds.
The Frog Squad’s digital efforts culminated late Friday night when Emmanuel Macron’s campaign was hacked. Much like the hacks in our own presidential election last year, the #MacronLeaks was timed to do as much damage as possible to his candidacy. His campaign hardly had any time to respond because in France there is mandated 44 hour pre-election coverage blackout. Working under a tight deadline, they managed to get a statement out saying that some of the leaked documents were forgeries mixed with actual documents, but there was no discussion of the hack by the candidates or in the press beyond that. Meanwhile, here in the U.S. the Frog Squad did everything they could to amplify the #MacronLeaks hack.
If you want to see how the alt-right (and their Kremlin operative friends) organize their political attacks online, this thread from Buzzfeed’s Ryan Broderick shows how they disseminate their attacks from 4chan to Reddit, social networks, search, and French media, all in anticipation of the final drop from Wikileaks. It’s a textbook example of how they operate. There’s also already some early analysis about who was actually using the #MacronLeaks hashtag in real time and counter-measures being taken to limit the hack’s effects in the final hours. The analytics of the hashtag showed that Macron supporters and Americans on the left were able to overpower the right’s campaign at least by volume on Twitter. Potentially this burst of tweets neutralized the far right’s effort to swing the election to Le Pen in the final hours.
For many in America and other parts of Europe, France felt like a bellwether for whether small-d democracy (supporting democracy as a foundation of society and a system of government) could be saved. Macron, in fact, framed his candidacy as the only way to save the concept of democracy in France and much of the world agreed — including former President Barack Obama, who made clear how high the stakes were by endorsing Macron’s candidacy. I’m greatly relieved by his victory, and I’m not alone. Twitter in Europe and America erupted after the race was called for Macron.
What happened online during the French election mirrored what happened in America’s own presidential election last year. The good news is that while the alt-right clearly has a playbook, activists are learning to counter it, reporters are covering it, and voters are aware of what’s happening. Between France and the recent Dutch elections it looks like Europe as a whole isn’t buying into the hyper-nationalist, white supremacist movement that fueled both Brexit and Donald Trump. And here in the U.S. — thanks to so much comprehensive news — we’re more fully aware that the fight against Trump, and the alt-right coalition that boosted his own campaign, is a global movement.
Shining a spotlight on the Frog Squad’s activities, as well as their alliance with Kremlin operatives who support their efforts, might not have been the deciding factor in Macron’s victory, but French voters knew a lot more about how the far right operates online than American voters did when we went to the polls last fall. That knowledge likely had an impact on their media consumption — and ultimately their vote.