Everybody should actually have heard by now: The French presidential candidate Emanuel Macron is apparently a closeted homosexual. That, at least, is what is written in an article on the pro-Russian propaganda website Sputnik on Feb. 4. And it wasn't long before this piece of fake news spread around the entire world. In the ensuing days, more than 17,000 television spots, articles, blog entries and posts on Twitter and Facebook referred to the item.
The number of reports is a good indication of the influence that a piece of fake news can have on a political campaign. Many of the reports that cited the story, after all, were in French and Macron himself was forced to issue a statement. For a few days, the rumor was one of the most important political topics under discussion in France. The controversy reached its apex on Feb. 7, but the debate still hasn't entirely subsided.
The incident provides an eye-opening look at the amount of time, energy and attention that can, indeed must, sometimes go into resolving an issue and disproving and neutralizing a claim of this sort. This time, energy and attention is then no longer available to focus on the problems really facing a country or to address the question as to who should be the next French president and why.
Public opinion surveys currently show the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen of Front National in the lead. But because she is far away from receiving an absolute majority in the first round of elections on April 23, there will be a run-off in early May, in which the second-place candidate will face off against Le Pen. Because he will likely be able to count on receiving the votes of the candidates defeated in the first round, the second-place finisher has good chances of ultimately emerging victorious. It remains unclear who that candidate might be. The conservative candidate François Fillon has spent some time in the lead, as has former finance minister Macron, a pro-European liberal. But in addition to other political attacks, he must also defend himself from the rumor that his marriage to his wife, who is 24 years older than he, is just for show and that he is, in reality, gay.
There were two clear phases in the spreading of this rumor. The first Twitter posts appeared last May and reappeared occasionally throughout the year, often on accounts that can be connected to the right-wing populist Front National. But the posts had little effect and the issue faded away. Until Nicolas Dhuicq, a conservative French parliamentarian, gave an interview to the pro-Russian propaganda website Sputnik. Referring to Macron, he said: "An extremely well-funded gay lobby stands behind him. That says everything." It is clear what the lawmaker meant: Macron is gay. The article appeared shortly after noon on Feb. 4, the point at which our graphic begins. One could say that it was only at this point that the rumor really began spreading around the world.
A Fake News Item Circles the Globe
The geographic distribution of stories and posts that link back to the original Sputnik article.
Aside from France, there were a particularly large number of stories on the issue in the United States, Turkey and Russia, according to data collected and analyzed by Unicepta on behalf of ZEIT and ZEIT ONLINE. Unicepta is a media intelligence company based in Cologne and its 700 employees around the world observe and analyze data on the internet and in traditional media. To truly understand the graphic, it is necessary to know that it only shows online reports. And it only includes articles and posts that refer directly to the original story on Sputnik.
Civil Society Remains Unpredictable
The full extent of the buzz revealed by Unicepta is many times larger -- fully 17,000 posts and reports. In Germany alone, around 30 articles appeared in the printed issues of newspapers and magazines looking into the Macron rumor, the possible political consequences for him and the possible impact of Russian interference in the campaign. Sputnik, the online portal where it all began, is backed financially by the Russian state, after all, and actively spreads disinformation.