Russia Helping Stoke French Protests

Moscow continues using information warfare to sow division in Western society.

While the underlying grievances are decidedly French, the protests are getting a push from the outside.

The Times of London (“Russian accounts fuel protesters’ outrage online“):

Hundreds of social media accounts linked to Russia have sought to amplify the street protests that have rocked France, according to analysis seen by The Times.

The network of accounts has circulated messages on Twitter that focus on the violence and chaos of the yellow vest or gilet jaune riots. As the unrest began last month, a group of about 200 monitored accounts was churning out approximately 1,600 tweets and retweets a day. A large proportion of the accounts appear to be so-called “sock puppets”, which purport to be run by westerners.

According to an analysis by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company, the accounts have spread disinformation, using photographs of injured protesters from other events to bolster a narrative of brutality by French police.

The remainder is, alas, behind a paywall.

Bloomberg (“Pro-Russia Social Media Takes Aim at Macron as Yellow Vests Rage“):

Emmanuel Macron successfully dodged cyberattacks and fake news reports that were widely blamed on a Kremlin effort to destabilize his 2017 presidential campaign.

Now, with France convulsed by violent protests, the Russians appear to be back – and may be hitting closer to their mark. Among 600 Twitter accounts known to promote Kremlin views, the top hashtag now is #giletsjaunes, the French name for the so-called Yellow Vests protest movement, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a unit of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. that monitors those accounts and other pro-Kremlin activity.

The Twitter accounts monitored by the alliance usually feature U.S. or British news. But the French protests “have been at or near the top” of their activity for at least a week, says Bret Schafer, the alliance’s Washington-based social media analyst. “That’s a pretty strong indication that there is interest in amplifying the conflict” for audiences outside France, he says.

A major theme of recent tweets is that French law enforcement is on the verge of mutiny. That assertion – which doesn’t appear to be supported by facts – resembles other Kremlin-backed disinformation campaigns that have tried to engender mistrust in Western governments and show that liberal democracies are in decline, Schafer says.

Much of the tweeted material comes from Russian state media outlets including the Sputnik news website, the RT television network, and Ruptly, a German-based video news agency that belongs to RT. These outlets are covering the French crisis closely; RT has said that 12 of its journalists have been injured in the protests, far more than any other news organization.

Sputnik and RT have reported in recent days that most French police no longer support Macron and are siding with the protesters. Their sources: representatives of two small police unions that together won less than 4 percent of votes in nationwide union elections this month. Sputnik and RT also have shown a video – widely shared on French social media — of police in the southwestern town of Pau removing their helmets in what was described as a sign of solidarity with protesters. Local police and journalists on the scene said the description was untrue. They said some officers had briefly removed their helmets to talk with protesters before putting them back on.

As with the Russian influence campaign in the 2016 US elections, it’s impossible to quantify the impact. As noted in a piece earlier this morning, violent protests are a normal part of French politics and the frustrations that are apparently fueling this round predate Macron’s election. But Moscow has become quite good at stoking divisions in Western societies as part of its political warfare.

FILED UNDER: Europe, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. James Pearce says:

    According to an analysis by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company, the accounts have spread disinformation, using photographs of injured protesters from other events to bolster a narrative of brutality by French police.

    Kinda striking how “bolstering the narrative” is such a focus of these Russian social media schemes. Maybe we should get back to a politics of ideology rather than a politics of narrative. Might not be as fun, but it would probably help keep the barbarians outside the gates.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @James Pearce: I’m not understanding what you’re arguing.

  3. Scott says:

    And here is Trump joining in on the Russian fun.

    https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1071382401954267136

  4. gVOR08 says:

    I would be surprised if there is not also money behind these protests from the Kochs, the Mercers, or someone like them. Quite probably in coordination with the Russians.

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  5. Gustopher says:

    I’m beginning to think we need to cut Russia off from the Internet. Not at the packet level or anything like that (we would need the cooperation of every vpn formthat), but sabotaging the actual physical infrastructure — the cables that lead in and out.

    The internet is distributed to make it resilient to natural disaster, but less so to deliberate action.

  6. MattBernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    @James Pearce: I’m not understanding what you’re arguing.

    Seconded. Seriously @James Pearce, what do you mean by politics of ideology versus narrative? I think it’s really important to you, and I have a guess at what you mean, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth.

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  7. Gustopher says:

    @MattBernius: I think he means that we should stop being human. If we weren’t so hung up on stories of individual suffering and basing our beliefs on those, we would instead take a big picture view of the whole system and have better results. We would be less prone to emotional manipulation.

    But, we would also all be software engineers.

    It fits in with his belief that minorities aren’t all that important (important, yes, but farther down the list of priorities). They often have compelling narratives, but we should be focused on some nebulous bigger picture.

    I’m not sure what he thinks is more important, but I am quite sure that we are doing it wrong.

    At least, that’s my guess. I don’t find him as deliberately trolling as a lot of people do. I think he’s just frustrated to somehow not be able to communicate. I think of him as a Libertarian stuck discussing romance novels — something isn’t clicking. “Let’s talk about the dashing young man’s prospects, rather than his prodigious sexual prowess. Does he have other skills?”

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  8. John430 says:

    ‘Moscow continues using information warfare to sew division in Western society.”

    While I can’t attest to the veracity of this thread, I do know that Moscow didn’t SEW, it SOWED.

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    The Twitter accounts monitored by the alliance usually feature U.S. or British news. But the French protests “have been at or near the top” of their activity for at least a week, says Bret Schafer, the alliance’s Washington-based social media analyst.

    What twitter accounts? How many? What methodology is used to identify them? To determine whether they are intended to “stir up trouble?” What is the source of these accounts? How many posts?

    Everything in the propaganda pieces you link is based on unverified third-hand information. There is no data, and no sourcing of the claims being made.