France’s far-right populist leader Marine Le Pen is struggling to maintain support ahead of the country’s upcoming presidential election, as independent Emmanuel Macron has taken a commanding lead in recent opinion polls. Yet online, it’s the National Front’s Le Pen who is dominating.
Le Pen’s campaign has heavily focused on developing a social media presence, and currently dwarfs her competitors in terms of followers. In a number of cases, pro-Le Pen hashtags have trended on Twitter and given the impression of a groundswell of support for her campaign.
But new analysis shows that some of Le Pen’s social media success is actually the result of a tiny, coordinated group of followers who rapidly flood Twitter with pre-prepared memes and hashtags. The rate and content of these tweets also suggest that many of these accounts are either partially or fully automated “bots” rather than genuine supporters.
A report published Monday from Ben Nimmo and Nika Aleksejeva of the Atlantic Council think tank analyzed thousands of tweets and numerous pro-National Front accounts to assess where Le Pen gets her online support. The report found that in three different cases when hashtags voicing support for Le Pen or attacking her political rivals were trending, just a handful of accounts were driving them.
“There is a small group of very active supporters who are clever about how they do this, managing to make it look like a grassroots movement,” said Nimmo, a senior information defense fellow at the Atlantic Council.
The report shows that the accounts supporting Le Pen carried out coordinated campaigns to get certain hashtags to trend. These were usually launched almost simultaneously, with three or four accounts mixing and matching a stock of pro-Le Pen photos and text slogans to create their tweets.
In one case, the report found an apparent bot account using the Twitter handle @ImRiyyr tweeted the same hashtag with a different image 95 times in the space of less than 20 minutes. This flurry of tweets, which stood out for its frequency even among other seemingly automated accounts, was later deleted.
The report also identified a number of accounts that don’t initiate these social media campaigns, but amplify them through retweeting hundreds of pro-Le Pen tweets in quick succession to spread the hashtag.
“It looks like you’ve got maybe a dozen people who are doing this, but they’re managing to make things trend,” Nimmo said. “Whenever people write that Marine Le Pen has a huge Twitter army, I don’t think she does ― I think she’s got a small but very skilled one.”
Although there is no official link between the National Front and the accounts that start and drive these pro-Le Pen hashtags, their efforts function in parallel with the official Le Pen campaign’s social media strategy. The Le Pen campaign has repeatedly launched targeted social media operations to attack rivals and dominate the narrative, including getting the party’s youth wing and senior officials to blast out memes targeting Francois Fillion just as he was set to give a speech.
One of the accounts covered in the Atlantic Council’s report is @Avec_Marine, whom Politico Europe identified last month as a 23-year-old Le Pen supporter. The man reportedly behind @Avec_Marine claimed that he had informal and formal links with the National Front, according to Politico.
The campaigns that @Avec_Marine and similar far-right accounts launch do require some wider support from beyond their small network, however, and draw on Le Pen’s real following for content they can retweet to create the appearance of greater support.
“This isn’t entirely artificial, but from looking at the Twitter patterns it’s artificially amplified,” Nimmo said. “Those genuine people are getting a disproportionate voice.”
The prevalence of bots supporting or opposing candidates is not unique to Le Pen supporters, or to the French elections. Nimmo also noticed accounts supporting Independent candidate Emmanuel Macron attached to some Le Pen supporters’ hashtags, and there was significant coverage last year of the Twitter bot army that buoyed President Donald Trump’s online presence.
Current opinion polls in France have Le Pen losing the presidency to Macron, who rose to prominence after scandal plagued former front-runner Republican Francois Fillon. The polls have consistently shown Le Pen winning or coming in second in the first round of France’s vote, but ultimately getting handily defeated in the election’s final round in early May.
Le Pen has been attempting to drive a narrative that the polls have it wrong, much as they did in Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum. Her argument is a classic far-right populist appeal that there is a huge group of citizens that traditional media and political elites have ignored, and who are going to have their voices heard when they elect her to the presidency.
The ability to show major active support on social media helps that perception, even if the Twitter trends flame out quickly and aren’t a true representation of support.
“The success of the hashtags was small, but the success of the bigger narrative of lots of online support was greater,” Nimmo said.