Macron Is Gay, Not! – Seite 1

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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.

A Growing Uproar

The Macron story found its way into all media and social networks. Here, the number of stories and posts per day

UNICEPTA © ZEIT ONLINE

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.

Lack of Precise Control

From the Russian perspective, the Sputnik report is but a small skirmish in a much larger information war. The chief of Russia's general staff, Valery Vasilevich Gerasimov, described the details of the strategy in February 2013 in an essay in a weekly military newspaper. Gerasimov wrote that non-military instruments are more important than ever, even more meaningful than weapons. And he explicitly mentioned communication as one of those instruments. In other words, wars aren't just won by those with a greater arsenal, they are also won by those who are successful in confusing and weakening their enemies with disinformation. In pursuing this strategy, the Russian state has since assembled an entire network of pro-Russian propaganda sites alongside the broadcaster RT, and they don't even pretend to adhere to journalistic standards. Sputnik is part of that network.

Since the publication of Gerasimov's article, the cyber-security expert Sandro Gaycken has been keeping tabs on Russia's maneuvers in this global disinformation offensive. Gaycken is director of the Digital Society Institute at the private, industry-financed elite university ESMT in Berlin. "The Russian secret service is good at developing stories and narratives, thus influencing entire groups," he says. It is something they were already skilled at during Soviet times, he says, and "they have transferred this capability into the digital world." Gaycken says the Russians "quite like" to rely on "minority opinions that suit them. They support and amplify them." That is exactly what happened in the case of Macron, with Sputnik interviewing an unimportant French parliamentarian.

Regarding the approaching general election in Germany and the possibility that Russia will seek to exert influence by way of fake news, Gaycken says that a weak Germany in a divided European Union would fit perfectly in the Russian government's "grand strategy." Reflecting his years of exchanges with Russian cyber-security officials, Gaycken says: "I see them as tough adherents of realpolitik. Their overarching goal is clearly that of driving the U.S. and Europe apart. The want to weaken NATO and the European Union." A fractured Europe would be unable to assert and defend its values against Russia to the same degree as it has thus far. As such, a weaker Germany would be a better Germany from the Russian perspective. And a politically divided France is a desirable goal.

Lack of Precise Control

Gaycken, though, notes that Russia is unable to precisely control the consequences of individual fake news items. On the one hand, present-day paths of communication are too complex to be predictable, as the graphics show. "On the other hand, a deep cultural understanding of the target society is necessary for the successful planting of disinformation," Gaycken says. "And experience shows that this understanding is limited."

That was true of the Macron case as well. In France, the accusation that the presidential candidate is a closeted homosexual did not spell the end to his political career. When Macron commented on the story on Feb. 6, he was direct and even humorous, wondering facetiously if people could actually believe that he had time for a secret parallel life in addition to his campaign and his marriage. "If you're told I lead a double life … it's because my hologram has escaped," he said. That was the moment that the debate began to shift. Instead of focusing on whether there might be some truth to the rumor, the French media since then has been increasingly looking at whether and how Russia is seeking to manipulate the election.

Translated by Charles Hawley