With less than two days to go before the final round of the French Elections, an emerging hashtag campaign, #MacronLeaks, was amplified throughout multiple social media platforms. #MacronLeaks reached 47,000 tweets in just three and a half hours after the initial tweet. This hashtag guided users to an alleged, possibly 9 GB, leak of Emmanuel Macron’s “campaign emails,” reportedly showing evidence of offshore accounts, tax evasion, and a slew of other nefarious activities.
Through a machine analysis, DFRLab tracked the onset of the campaign to the Twitter account of Jack Posobiec, the Washington DC Bureau Chief of an obscure, alt-right website, theRebelMedia. Posobiec’s bio on theRebel.media reveals that “in 2016, Jack was the Special Projects Director for Citizens for Trump, the largest Trump grassroots organization in the US,” and he is “a proud member of #SlavRight,” a nationalist Slavic movement.
Posobiec’s first tweet about the leaked Macron “campaign documents” occurred at 14:49 EST (18:49 UTC). This was then retweeted fifteen times in the first minute and 87 times in five minutes, suggesting the use of automated bots to amplify the signal.
The amplification of this “leak” came a day after Jack Posobiec claimed he was “being sued” by Emmanuel Macron. The hashtag also appeared hours before midnight in Paris when the official deadline to halt campaign activity was set.
Bots certainly came into play to help spread this hashtag from the US to France. Posobiec’s initial tweet was followed eight minutes later by one from user, William Craddick, another alt-right influencer whom the DFRLab has already identified as a fake news actor (see our post Spread It On Reddit). This was retweeted just over 200 times.
Some 90 minutes after Posobiec began tweeting, his posts were retweeted by two of nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen’s most active and aggressive online supporters, @Messsmer and @AudreyPatriote, both of whom the DFRLab has identified as the leaders of numerous pro-Le Pen hashtag drives (see here and here).
These accounts then began posting their own tweets, sharing WikiLeaks’ posts.
@Messsmer and @AudreyPatriote have a history of cooperation on hashtag drives, and those hashtag drives are usually amplified by likely bots.
Those include the accounts @patricia691503 and @Georges_Resist, both of which posted dozens of retweets in a span of two hours. They also include @Languillem, which in March was the most active amplifier of Kremlin outlets RT and Sputnik in French, as the DFRLab has reported.
In total, the ten most active accounts to use the #MacronLeaks hashtag posted over 1,300 tweets in just over three hours, another classic sign of bot use. The account @dontreadonmemes, for example, posted 294 tweets between 16:00 EST/20:00 UTC and 18:00EST/22:00 UTC, almost 150 tweets an hour.
By midnight local time in France, Twitter traffic was divided between alt-right accounts in the United States and far-right accounts in France.
The most important surge came when WikiLeaks began tweeting the hashtag. The tweet itself was cautious, pointing out that the leak “could be a 4chan practical joke,” but it was retweeted over 2,000 times, compared with over 600 times for Posobiec.
Wikileaks was the most mentioned user, accounting for almost 20% of all coverage on the “leaks” while Posobiec, Craddick, and Disobedient News also received high traffic, totaling 21.8% of coverage between them. French far-right accounts including @Messsmer, @onescapee and Le Pen deputy Florian Philippot were mentioned by just over 12% of tweets.
Taken together, the data indicates that the #MacronLeaks hashtag was initially launched in the US and was driven by a cluster of alt-right accounts and probable bots. It was then picked up by Le Pen supporters, and probable bots, and passed on to the French audience. WikiLeaks played a key role in publicizing the hashtag; the leading US amplifiers of #MacronLeaks were mentioned more than their French counterparts; but overall, French posts appear to have predominated.
While the authenticity of the “leaked” documents is still in question, the alt-right’s activity in amplifying the #MacronLeaks hashtag is not, pointing to yet another attempt to skew democratic elections in a Western country.