Influence operations receive a lot of attention when they target the United States, but less so when they’re focused on other parts of the world. Russia Today (RT), for example, a Kremlin-aligned media outlet, has spent nearly $150 million on influence operations and propaganda targeting the United States since 2016. The campaign, irrespective of its efficacy, has garnered significant media attention. But foreign disinformation is also active against European audiences. A recent report by Cardiff University showed that pro-Russian trolls have been busy targeting 32 European media outlets, such as Le Figaro (France), Die Welt (Germany) and La Stampa (Spain).
France has experienced this wave firsthand. In 2017, hackers affiliated with Russia’s military intelligence (GRU) exfiltrated internal emails and documents from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team. The “Macron Leaks,” as it was then named, saw a mix of genuine and fabricated campaign materials spread through social networks—starting with WikiLeaks—and amplified by the U.S. far right. In 2020, after the murder of high school teacher Samuel Paty, Turkish-affiliated trolls launched a wide-ranging anti-French campaign, criticizing its principles of laïcité and freedom of expression, amid a moment of deteriorating bilateral relations that led Paris to recall its ambassador from Turkey. Although this foreign information operation did not have the same impact on public opinion as the Macron Leaks, the government perceived it as another wake-up call.
In response to these politically destabilizing operations, the French government has begun structuring a permanent monitoring and response capability.
A New Service Dedicated to Countering Information Manipulation
During a meeting of the National Security and Defence Council in January 2021, President Macron decided to create an office called VigiNum that is dedicated to the detection and characterization of foreign media manipulation. The office officially began operating in October 2021 and is under the authority of the prime minister’s office.
VigiNum relies primarily on intelligence services for attribution, and media and election regulators (CSA and CNCCEP, respectively) for enforcing mitigation measures. For instance, when the Macron Leaks first landed on WikiLeaks in 2017, regulators called for news outlets and citizens not to share any information during the media blackout period, as mandated by electoral laws.
The government allocated to VigiNum an annual budget of 12 million euros, and an in-house expert workforce of 65, mostly comprising data scientists, social media analysts and a few geopolitics experts. Overall, almost a hundred people will contribute to VigiNum’s missions, with the help of other ministries. The service will be led by a magistrate with experience in counterterrorism coordination, which indicates that it will act primarily as an interministerial coordination tool.
This model is reminiscent of the U.S.’s Global Engagement Center and of the U.K.’s National Security Communications Team, which have operated for the past few years. But contrary to what one might think, VigiNum is not a last-minute attempt to catch up with information manipulation. The government began the work in earnest in 2018, with the release of a seminal report by the defense ministry’s Institute for Strategic Research, which theorized about and analyzed information manipulation campaigns. At the same time, an interministerial committee, already in charge of doctrines, governance, and coordination, realized the potential value of an institution like VigiNum and now forms the core of the new service.
VigiNum’s official operation is coming at a critical moment in France’s electoral politics. The French Pacific territory of New Caledonia is due to hold its third independence referendum on Dec. 12, and the government is worried that China is supporting the pro-independence movement. The New Caledonia election will serve as a test of VigiNum ahead of the presidential election taking place in April 2022. In that election, all eyes will be locked on Russia, as well as influence groups potentially aligned with China, Turkey or the U.S. far right.
Moscow has not stopped its influence campaigns since the last election and is already seeking to undermine the French armed forces abroad.
The Armed Forces Ready to Counter Hostile InfoOps ... Against Their Own
Fake, manipulated or subverted information is a weapon, said Minister Florence Parly when she unveiled the armed forces’ new cyber influence doctrine (lutte informatique d'influence, L2I) in October 2020. The doctrine describes how the French army can use social media to counter adversarial information operations as well as promote its own military operations abroad.
France has long conducted psychological operations (PsyOps), and much of the doctrine’s content was not a secret for well-informed readers. Until the early 2010s, PsyOps were the responsibility of the Military Influence Group, until it merged with the Civil-Military Action Group to create the Joint Centre for Environmental Action (CIAE). The Paris attacks and the increasing influence of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine only convinced the political and military leadership that cyber information operations (InfoOps) required dedicated personnel, policies and budget. This came as the armed forces reinvested in the field of strategic communications as they had rejoined NATO’s integrated command in 2008.
Recognizing the diversity of these threats, the doctrine identifies state actors that sometimes act through proxies, and “organized armed groups”—either terrorist organizations or proto-states—as its main opponents.
Defined as “military operations conducted in the informational sphere of cyberspace,” France’s online influence operations primarily seek to “detect, characterize, and counter” adversarial InfoOps and support the armed forces’ strategic communications. By opportunity, the doctrine also allows the gathering of intelligence or deception operations. These actions can take place “autonomously or in combination with other operations.”
The doctrine separates these functions into three pillars: intelligence, defense and action. In its intelligence pillar, InfoOps consists of monitoring and detecting hostile influence activity. It also includes deceiving the enemy in order to better understand its intent and capabilities. In its defensive pillar, InfoOps deploy countermeasures, most likely in the forms of counterinfluence campaigns and the use of social media platforms’ reporting tools.
Finally, the action pillar consists of discrediting adversaries and supporting the force’s maneuvers in the field. The action side of InfoOps also includes supporting the armed forces’ communications. The pamphlet takes the example of American WebOps that U.S. Cyber Command has developed extensively to sustain the force’s strategic communications, ensuring “coherence between acts and words.” It also has the potential for integration with defensive cyber operations, for instance, by countering an adversary’s narrative about a cyberattack heavily impeding the armed forces.
The French Cyber Command exerts authority over the planning and conduct of InfoOps, which remain deeply integrated through the Joint Operations Command.
The doctrine is only one facet of the new “strategic vision” of the armed forces. Summarized in the new chief of the joint staff’s motto of “winning the war before the war,” the vision acknowledges that if the struggle among great and middle powers is back, it now permeates all levels and domains of competition. In consequence, the French armed forces are undergoing a dual transformation. On the one hand, they are preparing for high-intensity conflicts, especially in geopolitically volatile environments where tensions could flare rapidly. Taiwan, Ukraine, Libya and the Strait of Hormuz are just a few of these hotspots. All the while, Paris is revamping its operations to better apprehend and counter acts of “gray-zone warfare”—which usually fall below the threshold of armed conflict and leverage irregular proxies, whether they are private military companies, little green men or local combatants. In the gray zone, the worst-case scenario would be similar to the Russian invasion of Crimea. That conflict overturned the status quo with a quick fait accompli while Russia benefited from some level of deniability.
Facing Russia at Home and Abroad
France is acutely aware of the potential backlash related to acknowledging publicly that it carries out information operations. In December 2020, Facebook attributed an influence operation on its social network to “individuals associated with [the] French military.” It took down 100 accounts and pages targeting audiences in Mali and the Central African Republic that seemingly had been fighting Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s influence operations, most likely under Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA). The IRA’s operations on the African continent benefit the Russian-aligned mercenary Wagner Group. The French military’s alleged efforts to counter the Wagner Group come as the armed forces are facing increased pressure from the coup d’état in Mali, a development the Pentagon has been ringing alarm bells about for some time.
When Minister Parly unveiled the military cyber influence doctrine, she notably reassured the audience that the armed forces would not conduct InfoOps on the homeland, and that they would follow strict rules of engagement. Those rules include respect for domestic and international law, and standing principles, one of which is not to interfere in electoral processes. The primary goal of French InfoOps, said Parly, was to convey a “sincere and convincing narrative” that would contain, denounce and counter the adversaries. Nonetheless, Russia was quick to decry “a declaration of militarizing the information space,” an astoundingly hypocritical comment from a nation accused of conducting vast disinformation operations.
When countering disinformation, the French government faces the same questions at home and abroad: where to draw the line and, most importantly, how to walk it. The French Constitution protects freedom of thought and expression, just as the U.N. Charter mandates noninterference. At the same time, France cannot stand idly by while foreign powers attempt to disrupt its elections, potentially provoking secessionist movements, and sway public opinion against its military, endangering both its political foundations and the lives of its soldiers.
Such a dilemma is the result of a major asymmetry between democracies, which are more vulnerable to influence, and autocracies that do not face the same constraints of balancing rights and freedoms. The question for France, and for democratic regimes more widely, is whether countering hostile narratives is worth the risks of doing so covertly: first, the risk to their reputation as beacons of rights and freedoms; second, the risk of further polarizing local communities; and last but not least, the risk of diminishing trust in democratic institutions and the media in societies that are already suffering from political instability.
The author wishes to thank all those that provided comments and advice on early drafts of this article.