Ooh, la la. So, it happened to you too. The frontrunning presidential candidate got hacked, and all his emails were dumped online in one giant cache. WikiLeaks is tweeting about it. There is a hashtag. 4chan’s /pol/ is all over it. Screenshots purporting to show corruption and secret bank transfers are going viral. The meme wars are on.
This is a plea: Do not get played the way the US press got played, gullibly falling into the trap set for it. And don’t ignore what happens online. These hacks are merely the stage for the misinformation machine.
Like ours, your election came down to two candidates. One of them, Marine Le Pen, is running on a platform of ethno-nationalism, and is sympathetic to the Kremlin. The other candidate, Emmanuel Macron, is an investment banker endorsed by the global status quo — why, even our ex-president Barack Obama just endorsed Macron, saying he was the one who “stood up for liberal values.”
As in the US, the candidate and the political party running against the one liked by the Kremlin got hacked, not the other one. Funny how that goes. But I digress.
But there are big differences between the attacks in the United States and France as well. For one thing, this dump of stolen emails came about 41 hours before your election, and just one precious hour before French media entered the blackout period during which it cannot report substantive stuff about either candidate. So the rumor mill will mostly stay online. For another, yours is not a close election like the US one. Macron is polling at 22 percentage points higher than his competitor — far, far more than the US margin between Trump and Clinton.
But it’s not time to relax. The US experience shows the many ways such uncurated dumps of hacked emails fuel viral misinformation, create grave violations of privacy, and leave the public in a state that is more confused than illuminated.
Hacking and releasing all internal documents and private communication of one campaign is a form of political sabotage, and it may be more potent than you expect. There won’t be time to prove or debunk anything, but the confusion will spread. This isn’t whistleblowing meant to shed light on the operations of power. The goal is to frustrate, not persuade, and to create doubt, confusion, and paralysis.
In the US, many reporters had great difficulty resisting the lure of the uncurated dump from the Clinton campaign. I watched on Twitter as they spent a lot of time digging up emails about themselves and colleagues, and chuckling and snarking over it. There were just six weeks left before a consequential election in the US, but they couldn’t take their eyes off all this candy, Most of the stuff was mundane. There were a few items of public interest — vastly outweighed by the juicy, juicy gossip. A lot of this gossip made its way to major newspapers, even their front pages. Important issues got buried. We got very few stories before the election, for example, about the unprecedented conflicts of interest that would be posed by a presidency of a businessman with vast holdings all over the world and a name that he licenses to commercial buildings.
It’s true that there is barely more than a day left until your election, but such fixation with the gossipy side of politics can cripple reporters’ attention after the election too. Editors will be tempted to assign many reporters to dig through the whole dump, and reporters may find themselves mentioned.
There are a lot of things you probably should be reporting on after the election, and the day will still be 24 hours. Editors and reporters should not just follow the candy that has been deliberately dumped in front of them. It’s hard to resist such temptation, but in an age when censorship operates by distracting us from what’s important, it is crucial to consider what’s essential and what are deliberate ploys at distraction. Consider carefully the opportunity cost of assigning large numbers of reporters to search through the dump. In this day of shrinking newspaper budgets, what else are you not covering? What does it mean to rifle through one side’s internal communication, while being completely silent on the other, unhacked counterpart?
My advice for traditional media is simple but hard to follow: When reporting, have a laser-sharp eye on news truly in the public interest: gross misconduct, major corruption, criminal actions. Before reporting on information from a hack, ask yourself this: Would you go to great lengths to find a way to hack or leak this information if it wasn’t just conveniently dumped in front of you? If not, it’s probably not newsworthy enough to report on.
And while reporting, don’t forget the bigger story: This was an act of political sabotage, the asymmetric releasing of all internal assets of only one campaign. The political sabotage itself is news and should be covered as news — and not just after the fact.
Please also remember: People mentioned in these emails have a right to privacy. Being associated with a political campaign is not an excuse for the media to disregard a person’s fundamental privacy rights. In the WikiLeaks dump of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, for example, a staffer’s suicide attempt was mentioned. WikiLeaks gleefully tweeted this, linking to the email with the staffer’s name. CNN commentators discussed it on the air. Such gross violations of people’s privacy aren’t just bad for the person involved: They send a message to all young people that if they get into politics, their rights will be trampled upon. Not every fact is fodder for reporting, even if it may be of some interest to a future historian.
And some of the “facts” aren’t facts at all. These days, hacks are primarily fodder for a misinformation campaign to be conducted mostly online. Researchers have already found that pro-Trump Twitter accounts (with #maga, or “make America great again,” in their handles) are heavily promoting Marine Le Pen, and the leak hashtag may well have started in the US by an alt-right Trump supporter. Reporters have already documented the 4chan trolls actively promoting fake claims of corruption, and watching with glee as traditional media tried to debunk the claims — because debunking is a form of repeating false claims and giving them more publicity. Debunking fake news and rumors is a bit like trying to beat back a tar pit by stepping on it again and again: You keep sinking. The more you kick it, the more it sticks to your feet.
Dealing with such misinformation and disinformation campaigns is hard to do, but we learned something in the US election campaign. Unfortunately for the US, mass media here either ignored the online viral misinformation, or somewhat rarely tried in vain to debunk false claims and ended up giving them more publicity. Neither option is great. What to do? This is a pickle indeed.
Here’s what I’d suggest: Report aggressively on the fact there is a disinformation campaign. Report it as part of reporting on how the hack is political sabotage. But dig deeper.
Investigate the fake news sites. Look at the Twitter bots that are pushing misinformation from these emails, often in memes or screenshots. Trace their history, their network. Look into who is operating all this; how the coordination is done.
But don’t report their false claims. Rather, only report on claims that you have verified, that are important and factual. Report the truth, report it loudly and repeatedly. Debunk online misinformation only when it becomes too prominent to ignore, and then point out it’s not true, and that it is part of a deliberate misinformation campaign. Focus on the deliberate misinformation part, don’t dwell on the false claim. In other words, try to never give more publicity to a viral lie than it already has. Research already shows that fake news works via repetition, and repeated debunking isn’t that helpful. It may even be counterproductive.
This dump may also contain false information. Who knows? With just a day or so to go, the innuendo will be damaging enough.
And who knows: Maybe some of it is true.
But this is not how we do things.
In a healthy democracy, the way to uncover or discuss corruption is not through the hacking of all the emails and campaign documents of political parties that displease some unaccountable, remote power, and the use of this stolen information as the stage for a misinformation campaign for the benefit of the other party, all of it cycling through online fever swamps and gullible media. Good journalism isn’t being led by the nose to whatever the hackers think one should focus on. In an era of information glut, what we choose not to report on, what we choose not to amplify, and what misinformation campaign we choose not to surrender to is the name of the game.
Eyes on the prize, dear France. If there is wrongdoing to be uncovered, do it on your own terms, at your own pace, through your own discretion. Learn from what the US media failed to do. Tell the trolls and the unaccountable, malevolent mischief makers to stuff it. Bonne chance!
Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina and contributing writer at the New York Times. Her first book on the networked public sphere and social movements, titled Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, is published by Yale University Press. She is currently working on a book on surveillance capitalism, big data and algorithms.
To learn more about Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, click here.