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