The campaign team of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron said on Friday night it had been the victim of a massive hacking attack after a trove of documents was released online.
Immediate suspicion fell on Russia, which has been accused of meddling in the US election to help get Donald Trump elected in November.
Campaign officials stated authentic documents had been mixed on social media with fake ones to sow doubt and misinformation and that it was a clear attempt to undermine Mr Macron.
Democracy at risk
The En Marche! Movement has been the victim of a massive and co-ordinated hack this evening which has given rise to the diffusion on social media of various internal information, Mr Macron’s En Marche! (Onwards!) party said in a statement.
The seriousness of this event is certain and we shall not tolerate the vital interests of democracy being put at risk.
Some 9 gigabytes of data from the campaign was posted online late on Friday.
WikiLeaks tweeted a link to the documents, saying it “contains many tens of thousands emails, photos, attachments up to April 24, 2017 while indicating it was not responsible for the leak itself.
The Macron campaign statement added that all the documents were lawful.
The French interior ministry said it would not comment on the alleged hacking attack.
Neither the ministry, nor any other ministry would be commenting on this because according to the law, campaigning has ended as of midnight, a spokesman said.
A campaign blackout starting minutes after the Macron team announcement means that Le Pen’s campaign can’t legally comment on the leak.
France’s election campaign commission will hold a meeting on Saturday morning to discuss the hacking attack on the Macron campaign and online documents leak. It urged French media not to publish the documents, warning that some of them were “probably” fake.
Putin is waging war
The latest hacking drew comparisons with alleged attempts to interfere with the US election.
US intelligence agencies said in January that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic campaign to influence the election on behalf of Mr Trump, her Republican rival who went on to win the US presidency.
Vitali Kremez, director of research with New York-based cyber intelligence firm Flashpoint, told Reuters his review indicated that APT 28, a group tied to the GRU, the Russian military intelligence directorate, was behind the leak. He cited similarities with US election hacks that have been previously attributed to that group.
A number of former aides to Hillary Clinton, whose campaign was allegedly targeted by Russian hackers last year, warned the leak could signal another attempt by Russia to influence Western elections.
“Putin is waging war against Western democracies and our President is on the wrong side,” former Clinton campaign press secretary Brian Fallon wrote on Twitter.
Kremlin accused of smear campaign
Former economy minister Macron’s team has already complained about attempts to hack it systems during a fraught campaign, blaming Russian interests in part for the cyber attacks.
On April 26, the team said it had been the target of a series of attempts to steal email credentials since January, but that the perpetrators had so far failed to compromise any campaign data.
Russia’s state-funded RT television and Sputnik news agency plan to sue Mr Macron over accusations they mounted a smear campaign against him, the chief editor of RT and Sputnik, Margarita Simonyan, said earlier on Friday evening.
“We’re sick of their lying. We’re going to sue,” Ms Simonyan wrote on Twitter.
In February, Mr Macron’s spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, accused the Kremlin of mounting a “smear campaign” via state media.
Opinion polls show Mr Macron is set to beat Ms Le Pen in Sunday’s second round of voting in what is seen to be France’s most important election in decades.
On Friday night as the #Macronleaks hashtag buzzed around social media, Florian Philippot, deputy leader of the National Front, asked on Twitter; “Will Macronleaks teach us something that investigative journalism has deliberately killed?”
Macron spokesman Sylvain Fort, in a response on Twitter, called Philippot’s tweet vile.
Ben Nimmo, a UK-based security researcher with the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council think tank, said initial analysis indicated that a group of US far-right online activists were behind early efforts to spread the documents via social media. They were later picked up and promoted by core social media supporters of Ms Le Pen in France, Mr Nimmo said.
Alt-right in US drove online push
The hashtag #MacronLeaks was first spread by Jack Posobiec, a pro-Trump activist whose Twitter profile identifies him as Washington D.C. bureau chief of the far-right activist site Rebel TV, according to Mr Nimmo and other analysts tracking the election.
You have a hashtag drive that started with the alt-right in the United States that has been picked up by some of Le Pen’s most dedicated and aggressive followers online, Mr Nimmo told Reuters.
Alt-right refers to a loose-knit group of far-right activists known for their advocacy of extremist ideas, rejection of mainstream conservatism and disruptive social media tactics.
Some experts see the Macron document dump as yet another sign of a post-truth society, one in which fake news, exaggerated tales and partisan talking points can crowd aside objective facts.
Dan Gillmor, a journalism professor at Arizona State University, calls it a global war on reality waged by partisans aiming to undermine public trust in, well, just about everything.
One of their clear goals is to help demagogues and authoritarians who have contempt for democratic principles, he said via email.