Russian-linked cybercampaigns put a bull's-eye on France. Their focus? The Olympics and elections

FILE - A man walks by Stars of David tagged on a wall in Paris, on Oct. 31, 2023. France says it has been the target of a Russian online destabilization campaign that used bots to whip up controversy and confusion about spray-painted Stars of David that appeared on Paris streets. French government officials accused Russia of operating a long-running online manipulation campaign against Ukraine's Western backers. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

PARIS (AP) 鈥 Photos of blood-red hands on a Holocaust memorial. Caskets at the Eiffel Tower. A fake French military recruitment drive calling for soldiers in Ukraine, and major French news sites improbably registered in an obscure Pacific territory, population 15,000.

All are part of orchestrated out of Russia and targeting France, according to French officials and cybersecurity experts in Europe and the United States. and the Paris Olympics sent them into overdrive.

More than a dozen reports issued in the past year point to an to undermine France, particularly the upcoming Games, and President Emmanuel Macron, who is one of Ukraine's most vocal supporters in Europe.

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This story, supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, is part of an Associated Press series covering threats to democracy in Europe.

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The Russian campaigns sowing anti-French disinformation began online in early summer 2023, but first became tangible in October, when more than 1,000 bots linked to Russia relayed photos of graffitied Stars of David in Paris and its suburbs.

A French intelligence report said the Russian intelligence agency FSB ordered the tagging, as well as subsequent vandalism of a memorial to those who helped rescue Jews from the Holocaust.

Photos from each event were amplified on social media by fake accounts linked to the Russian disinformation site RRN, according to cybersecurity experts. Russia denies any such campaigns. The French intelligence report says RRN is part of a larger operation orchestrated by Sergei Kiriyenko, a ranking Kremlin official.

鈥淵ou have to see this as an ecosystem,鈥 said a French military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal information about the Russian effort. 鈥淚t鈥檚 a hybrid strategy.鈥

The tags and the vandalism had no direct link to Russia's war in Ukraine, but they provoked a strong reaction from the French political class, with denunciations in the legislature and public debate. Antisemitic attacks are on the rise in France, and the war in Gaza has proven divisive.

The Stars of David could be interpreted either as support for Israel or as opposition. The effect was to sow division and unease. French Jews in particular have found themselves unwittingly thrust into the political fray despite, at just 500,000 people, making up a small proportion of the French population.

In March, just after Macron discussed the possibility of in Ukraine, a fake recruitment drive went up for the French army in Ukraine, spawning a series of posts in Russian- and French-language Telegram channels that got picked up in Russian and Belarusian media, according to a separate French government report seen by The Associated Press. On June 1, caskets appeared outside the Eiffel Tower, bearing the inscription 鈥淔rench soldiers in Ukraine.鈥

The larger disinformation efforts show little traction in France, but the Russian audience may have been the real target, officials said, by showing that Russia鈥檚 war in Ukraine is, as Putin has said, really a war with the West.

Among the broader goals, the French military official said, was a to sow social discord, erode faith in the media and democratic governments, undermine NATO, and sap Western support for Ukraine. Denigrating the Olympics, from which most is a bonus, according to French officials monitoring the increasingly strident posts warning of imminent unrest ahead of the Games.

On June 9, the French far-right 春色直播 Rally trounced Macron鈥檚 party in elections for the European Parliament. The party has : One of its leading figures, , cultivated ties to Putin for many years and supported Russia鈥檚 illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. And its leading contender for prime minister, Jordan Bardella, has said he opposes sending long-range weapons to Kyiv.

In more than 4,400 posts gathered since mid-November by antibot4navalny, a collective that analyzes Russian bot behavior, those targeting audiences in France and Germany predominated. The number of weekly posts ranged from 100 to 200 except for the week of May 5, when it dropped near zero, the data showed. That week, as it happens, was a holiday in Russia.

Many of the posts redirect either to RRN or to sites that appear identical to major French media, but with the domain 鈥 and content 鈥 changed. At least two of the more recent mirrored sites are registered in Wallis and Futuna, a French Pacific territory 10 time zones from Paris. A click on the top of the fake page redirects back to the real news sites themselves to give the impression of authenticity. Other posts redirect to original sites controlled by the the campaign itself, dubbed Doppelganger.

The redirects shifted focus for the European elections and continued after Macron called the surprise legislative elections with just three weeks to spare. Three-quarters of posts from the week ahead of the June 30 first-round legislative vote that were directed toward a French audience focused on either criticizing Macron or boosting the 春色直播 Rally, antibot4navalny found in data shared with The Associated Press.

One post on a fake site purported to be from Le Point, a current affairs magazine, and the French news agency AFP, criticizing Macron.

鈥淥ur leaders have no idea how ordinary French people live but are ready to destroy France in the name of aid for Ukraine,鈥 read the headline on June 25.

Another site falsely claimed to be from Macron鈥檚 party, offering to pay 100 euros for a vote for him 鈥 and linking back to the party's true website. And still another inadvertently left a generative artificial intelligence prompt calling for the re-write of an article 鈥渢aking a conservative stance against the liberal policies of the Macron administration,鈥 according to findings last week from Insikt Group, the threat research division of the cybersecurity consultancy Recorded Future.

鈥淭hey鈥檙e scraping automatically, and asking the AI to introduce bias or slants into the article and rewrite it,鈥 said Cl茅ment Briens, an analyst for Recorded Future.

Briens said metrics tools embedded within the site are likely intended to prove that the campaigns were money well-spent for 鈥渨hoever is doing the payouts for these operations.鈥

The French government cybersecurity watchdog, Viginum, has published multiple reports since June 2023 singling out Russian efforts to sow divisions in France and elsewhere. That was around the time that pro-Kremlin Telegram feeds started promoting 鈥淥lympics has Fallen鈥 鈥 a full-length fake Netflix film featuring an AI-generated voice resembling Tom Cruise that criticized the International Olympic Committee, according to the Microsoft Threat Analysis Center.

Microsoft said this campaign, which it dubbed Storm-1679, is fanning fears of violence at the Games and last fall disseminated digitally generated photos referring, among other things, to the attacks on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.

The latest effort, which started just after the first round of the elections on June 30, merges fears of violence related to both the Olympics and the risk of protests after the decisive second round, antibot4navalny found. Viginum released a new report Tuesday detailing the risks ahead for the Games 鈥 not for violence but for disinformation.

鈥淒igital information manipulation campaigns have become a veritable instrument of destabilization of democracies,鈥 Viginum said. 鈥淭his global event will give untold informational exposure to malevolant foreign actors.鈥 The word Russia appears nowhere.

Baptiste Robert, a French cybersecurity expert who ran unsuccessfully as an unaffiliated centrist in the legislative elections, called on his government 鈥 and especially lawmakers 鈥 to prepare for the digital threats to come.

鈥淭his is a : They really want to push people into the extremes,鈥 he said before the first-round vote. 鈥淚t鈥檚 working perfectly right now.鈥

The 春色直播 Press. All rights reserved.

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