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A Complete Timeline Of How Trump Supporters Tried — And Failed — To Hijack The French Election

TL;DR: No one on 4chan bothered to learn how to speak French.

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On Sunday night, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron defeated far-right populist Marine Le Pen in an election that morphed into the latest battleground for the wave of right-wing populism rippling through the US and Europe.

David Ramos / Getty Images

After the successes of both the UK's Brexit referendum and President Trump's campaign, many in the far-right corners of social media — on sites like 4chan and Reddit — expected and tried to help orchestrate a big win in France.

Here’s everything you need to know about how exactly the anonymous tribes of the right-wing internet failed to hijack the French electoral process. The main lesson here is once France's mainstream media decided to ignore the trolls, nothing they did managed to actually make it out, ironically, out of the far-right filter bubble.

The closest equivalent to 4chan that exists in France is a website called jeuxvideo.com (JVC), which translates to "videogames.com."

jeuxvideo.com

It has a section of its forum called the "18-25" — and over the course of this election it's grown into a hotbed of both the far-right and the far-left in France. It has a few key differences to 4chan, though, the main ones being that it's not anonymous — there are usernames — and it's moderated.

Not unlike 4chan, however, JVC was also ground zero for the French wave of Gamergate.

JVC has been the number one stop this election cycle for every young French person flirting with far-right ideology. The name of the board, "18-25," refers to the age group of its users.

jeuxvideo.com

Around January, as the American far-right was adopting the Discord chat application, so were JVC users. A Discord server called "La Taverne des patriotes" quickly swelled in popularity after it was shared on JVC threads.

BuzzFeed News interviewed two of the moderators of "La Taverne des patriotes" — the tavern of patriots — in February. Users going by The French Resistance and Chepamec told us that they didn't identify as being "alt-right" at all.

Discord

BuzzFeed News was using Discord at this time under the username "Flavortown."

In terms of memes, the two moderators said the closest things the French far-right had to Pepe the Frog were a red coffee cup used by National Front vice president Florian Philippot in YouTube videos and screengrabs of a Spanish comedian named El Risitas laughing.

Discord

Since 2014, the El Risitas laughing meme has been a popular in-joke among Reddit's r/gaming subreddit.

National Front members appear to be actually aware of the #Patriosphere and have attempted to work with them.

Twitter

In February, BuzzFeed News got ahold of screenshots of DMs between a low-level National Front secretary named Grégory Roose and several #Patriosphere accounts.

"They helped me out with a project. It's a small group of tweeters who are completely independent. For #SauvonsNosSDF [a National Front anti-immigration hashtag campaign], they provided a lot of help, but there was real independence," Roose told BuzzFeed News when asked for comment about the DMs.

BuzzFeed News also has a screenshot of a DM between a JVC user called ÉtatDeSavoie_26 messaging with an account that appears to belong to Éric Richermoz, a National Front secretary who is also part of Philippot's film crew.

In January, the #Patriosphere started networking with Trump supporters in a Discord room called "The Great Liberation of France." It contained bilingual strategy rooms, a French meme glossary, and a room for organizing Twitter bots.

The large majority of the work being done in The Great Liberation of France involved creating fake Facebook and Twitter accounts to manipulate French social media users.

The room linked to a Google document called "MEGA GENERAL". (MEGA stands for Make Everything Great Again.) The document had detailed instructions on how Trump supporters could create convincing French social media accounts.

Google Docs

The user who initially invited BuzzFeed News to The Great Liberation of France wished to remain anonymous, but he said he believes the Discord group is mostly made up of 4chan users.

"Immediately after the election, this dude coming from a bunch of [IP addresses] posts regular threads on 4chan, inviting people to join his little troll army to pull the next revolution in France," the anonymous user said in January. "The chat has been much quieter in weeks, but I suspect that's because they have moved more to private Twitter chats."

Outside of these fairly small Discord servers, most of the Le Pen buzz on Reddit and 4chan was actually just from Trump supporters sharing memes about the National Front.

4chan

According to Google alerts set up by BuzzFeed News, there have been over 600 threads mentioning the keywords "Le Pen" started on 4chan since April. These threads typically peaked in popularity around each of the two rounds of voting.

After Trump's victory in November, American far-right internet users started fantasizing about trying to hijack elections in other countries, such as France.

The Discord rooms helped American users learn more about the National Front. "The Great Liberation Of France" networked directly with two subreddits, r/Le_Pen and r/The_Europe.

BuzzFeed News saw several decent-sized social media campaigns migrate from "La Taverne des patriotes" to "The Great Liberation Of France" to 4chan to the r/Le_Pen and r/The_Europe subreddits to Twitter at large.

On the day of France's first round of elections, Twitter exploded with National Front memes. The #JeVote hashtag was full of Pepe photoshops and Trump memes. Almost all of them, however, were in English, not French.

The morning it was announced that centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron would be facing off against Marine Le Pen, 4chan launched several threads trying to organize a misinformation campaign against him.

Users suggested spreading a rumor that Macron was having an affair with his wife's daughter. They hunted Google for images of Macron standing too close to his 30-year-old step-daughter, Tiphaine Auzière.

Several French users did try to point out, however, that probably none of this would work because historically French voters have cared very little about the personal lives of their presidents.

But a few English-speaking Twitter accounts ran with the rumor. They even started tweeting at WikiLeaks asking if they could leak "dirt" on Macron.

This kind of weaponized fake news didn't really have much traction in France, for three main reasons:

First is that it doesn't appear that anyone on 4chan actually bothered to translate the fake news into French. Second is that the purveyors thought fake news tricks that worked in the US would work in France — not taking cultural differences into account. And third, the French simply don't use Facebook — the engine that drives fake news in the US and in other parts of the world — that much.

According to a Pew report in 2016, about half of all adults in the US are on Facebook. Similar data pulled about France around the same time shows only about a third of the country is using Facebook, which means there are fewer French people having their world-views determined by Facebook's algorithms.

Also, in terms of publishers, French media has been much slower to migrate over to Facebook. According to NewsWhip, which tracks social media trends, Le Monde has remained the most consistently huge publisher on French Facebook.

There simply isn't the same culture in France of websites aggregating far-right Twitter memes for Facebook audiences, like Breitbart, InfoWars, and TheBlaze do in the US. In the case of the French election, the memes went to Twitter and died.

And the French press as a whole, actually, have been incredibly aggressive in their fake news crackdown.

Jacques Pezet, a fact-checking journalist working in French for LibéDésintox and in German for Correctiv, told BuzzFeed News that debunking hoaxes has been a popular genre of reporting in France since at least 2008, when LibéDésintox was founded by daily newspaper Libération.

After LibéDésintox, the second-biggest fact checking unit in French media is led by Le Monde.

According to a study of 28 fake French election news stories conducted by Le Monde fact-checking journalist Adrien Sénécat, formerly of BuzzFeed News, this article by far-right satire site BuzzBeed was the most-shared hoax of the election.

Facebook

The article claimed that Macron was going to create a new tax that would force homeowners to pay rent on their properties. It gained over 120,000 shares and went so viral that Macron's team had to put a note on his campaign page saying that it was fake.

“People in France might share less fake information than in the US. Maybe a part of it is linked to a less partisan system," Sénécat said. "So the Trump vs. Clinton effect is lessened here."

"There is also the fact that French people are a bit more shy on Facebook than American people," he added.

Still, English-speaking 4chan users continued to use tactics from the playbook they believe helped Trump win the 2016 US election.

Multiple 4chan threads were started to monitor anti-fascist activity during riots in Paris.

Christophe Archambault / AFP / Getty Images

It’s a strategy they have used in the US over the last few months to "dox," harass, and intimidate the activists who have been gathering at the various anti-Trump protests breaking out on the UC Berkeley campus.

BuzzFeed News reached out to the moderator of "La Taverne des patriotes," who was formerly known as "The Great Liberation Of France" but is now going as "Le Chevalier". He explained that doxxing and harassing vocal anti-Le Pen protesters was "typical of retarded American politics."

Discord

Le Chevalier said that as of last week, their server had around 4,400 members. BuzzFeed News was banned in February from "La Taverne des patriotes" for not speaking French and can't independently verify that number.

The moderator also outlined some key differences between the members of La Taverne and what he's seen on American 4chan threads. For one thing, Le Chevalier is Jewish. He said he's a Paris-based law student in his early twenties who liked Marine Le Pen because he wants her to dismantle global oligarchies that he believes have united to control the world's population.

Another quirk of La Taverne is that racism is forbidden. A team of moderators, Le Chevalier said, will ban users almost immediately for posting racist content.

"It's illegal in France, racism," he said. "We don't tolerate that. The National Front banned racism and anti-Semitism from its program. It's forbidden. It's not our values." (While Le Pen attempted to rebrand the National Front, she has been accused of using racism and xenophobia as campaign tactics for the entirety of the election cycle.)

Then, last Wednesday, four days before the final round of voting, a user on 4chan posted what they claimed were documents that proved Emmanuel Macron had a private bank account in the Cayman Islands.

4chan

Le Pen even mentioned the 4chan bank account rumor during the last presidential debate that evening. That led the Paris prosecutor's office to open an investigation into the propagation of rumors with the purpose of misleading voters, possible forgery, the use of forged documents, and the concealment of forged documents.

French journalists, as well, were quick to shoot down the tax evasion rumors. Debunks appeared in Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Le Parisien.

Then, on the Friday before the final vote, more pictures of a document allegedly linking Macron to a Cayman Islands bank account were posted. A victory thread was started on 4chan.

4chan

Users were celebrating the fact that they had successfully manipulated the French media into creating the air of suspicion around Macron they were after. They didn't care that their hoax had been debunked; the users were simply excited to have created a controversy big enough for all the major newspapers in France to go after it.

"Well anon, you've done it. Meme magic has done its work. This is the #1 story in France right now. It's all over the TV. It's the main article on La Monde [sic]. 4chan is mentioned a lot," the original poster of the thread wrote.

And then, finally, after weeks of 4chan users plotting exactly how to attack Macron's team, an anonymous user posting from an American IP address released 9 gigabytes of memos and emails stolen from Macron's team.

The leaks were published minutes before midnight in Paris, and American far-right Twitter users eagerly spreading them clearly didn't know about France's pre-election media blackout.

In France, there is a pre-election campaigning ban that is respected by both politicians and the media. French law makes political commentary, TV spots, and candidates posting on social media illegal 48 hours before polls close. Even right-leaning Fdesouche — France's the closest equivalent to The Drudge Report — only had time to fire off one article that simply aggregated WikiLeaks' tweets before the blackout went into effect.

Which meant most of the social media chatter about Macron's emails was driven by far-right pro-Trump Twitter bots. And, once again, no one seemed to bother translating the tweets into French.

Also, it may be a criminal offense in France to even begin publishing what's inside the emails.

The leaks were quickly picked up and tweeted by Jack Posobiec, the Washington bureau chief for right-wing news site The Rebel. Posobiec tagged them #MacronLeaks.

Twitter

In the midst of his tweeting, Posobiec retweeted obviously fake French documents, like this photoshopped letter from Macron's Director of General Affairs Grégoire Potton, saying he likes to masturbate to episodes of Doctor Who while listening to .wav files of sinks emptying themselves.

"I don't speak French," Posobiec told BuzzFeed News. "But the great thing about Rebel Media is that being based in Canada — I'm not in Canada myself — but being based out of there we have people in Quebec who are French speakers. So they were able to come in and you know, I was sort of emailing them this and they would respond back, 'OK, this is what this says.'"

As of Sunday afternoon, Posobiec said that The Rebel plans to continue pushing what's in the emails to French readers. He hopes to make French-language videos that explain to French speakers what was included in the hack. He also said that he had received some messages from French Twitter users.

"People would be hitting me up in French and I don't speak French, so I would hit the Google translate on that and say, 'OK, what is this guy trying to say?' and then if I couldn't quite pick it up, I would hit it up to our guys in Quebec and say, 'OK, what is this guy trying to ask me?'" he said.

When asked about how The Rebel's decision to publish details from the emails went against the French media blackout, he wondered if that would affect the credibility of outlets like Le Monde.

"I'm interested to see — I don't know France as well as I do the US — but I'm interested to see if it has the same effect," he said.

And then that hashtag was picked up by WikiLeaks' official Twitter account. The hashtag went viral and that's when all hell broke loose for Macron's team. Well, that is, everywhere except for in France.

Compare the Google news results as of Monday morning for "Macron email" in the US and French editions.

Google News

"As you may have noticed, Emmanuel Macron was elected president, so we could first say that [the impact of fake news] wasn’t that big," LibéDésintox's fact-checking journalist Jacques Pezet said. "In the case of our main candidates: François Fillon, for whom this election seemed promised, lost because of the scandal over the employment of his wife. And for Marine Le Pen, since she clearly lost yesterday, you could say that the French weren’t ready to elect her."

What happens next for the global far-right movement is unclear. Germany's elections are in September and from the looks of it, the American far-right learned a very real lesson this week.

Other perspectives on this story

Outside Your Bubble is a BuzzFeed News effort to bring you a diversity of thought and opinion from around the internet. If you don’t see your viewpoint represented, contact the curator at bubble@buzzfeed.com. Click here for more on Outside Your Bubble.

Ryan Broderick is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Ryan Broderick at ryan@buzzfeed.com.

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