How the Macron Campaign Outsmarted the Russian Hackers

Emmanuel Macron’s campaign had the benefit of watching how Russian hackers were involved in the U.S. election in an attempt to help Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton. In the runoff for the French presidential election held Sunday, the whole world knew that far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen also had the backing of Vladimir Putin and that the same kinds of techniques were likely to be used by Russia to influence that election.

Sure enough, on Friday, just before a campaigning blackout imposed by French electoral law, there was a huge document dump of emails and other materials from the Macron campaign. But things unfolded very differently than they did in this country.

Literally at the 11th hour, before the blackout would silence it, the Macron campaign issued a statement saying it had been hacked and many of the documents that were dumped on the American 4Chan site and re-posted by Wikileaks were fakes.

The mainstream French media carried the Macron campaign statement, but virtually nothing else. In addition to the normal proscription of campaign “propaganda” on election eve, the government issued a statement saying specifically that anyone disseminating the materials in this dump in France could be liable to prosecution, and calling on the media to shoulder their “responsibility” by steering clear of them.

What was most notable at first was the fact that the French media refused to be played the way the American media had been and pretty completely ignored the stolen emails and documents. It’s hard to imagine that happening here, but it would be wonderful if this provided a cautionary tale for American journalists.

But the French media got an assist in ignoring the document dump from the Macron campaign in that statement suggesting that they were fakes. Apparently they weren’t bluffing. Christopher Dickey had already reported that Macron’s digital team had studied the behavior of the Russian hackers and regularly trained their staff in detecting the so-called “phishing” expeditions. Then they used them against the hackers in a classic counter-espionage move adapted for the digital era.

As reported by The Daily Beast, part of the Macron campaign strategy against Fancy Bear (also known as Pawn Storm and Apt28) was to sign on to the phishing pages and plant bogus information.

“You can flood these [phishing] addresses with multiple passwords and log-ins, true ones, false ones, so the people behind them use up a lot of time trying to figure them out,” Mounir Mahjoubi, the head of Macron’s digital team, told The Daily Beast for its earlier article on this subject.

In the end, whoever made the dump may not have known what is real and what is false…

What I love about that move is how it demonstrates that bluster, chest-thumping and reactive measures often produce weaker outcomes than simply outsmarting your opponent. What is required is often thoughtful patience…and a plan.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.