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France fights back as Russia sows disinformation to weaken support for Ukraine

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

And now to France, where investigators say they think Russia's secret services paid Bulgarian operatives to deface a Holocaust memorial in Paris. The purpose, they say, was to spark controversy and amplify it with fake social media accounts. It's one of many operations that French authorities say shows how the Kremlin wants to divide society in France in order to weaken support for Ukraine as it resists the Russian invasion. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, France is fighting back.

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AI-GENERATED VOICE: (Non-English language spoken).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: A news anchor with channel France 24 recently reported that President Emmanuel Macron had to cancel a trip to Ukraine after French spy services revealed he was the target of an assassination plot by Kyiv. The plot to kill Macron, it said, was meant to sow panic and therefore increase weapons deliveries to Ukraine from the west, and all would be blamed on the Kremlin.

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AI-GENERATED VOICE: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: The anchor's lips didn't quite match what he was saying. That's because the video was a deepfake created using AI.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: This video continues to be spread on social media. Here it is tweeted earlier today and...

BEARDSLEY: France 24 quickly debunked the video, linking it to a French-language pro-Russian news outlet. But not before former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and many others retweeted it. Dr. Ivana Stradner is a specialist on Russian propaganda with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

IVANA STRADNER: I have no doubt that we are going to see more deepfakes videos, more AI tools that are going to play the role in spreading Russia's narrative and sowing divisions.

BEARDSLEY: Stradner says AI is an integral part of Russia's new security strategy, and the Kremlin's information warfare has increased with its real war in Ukraine.

STRADNER: They have to do everything possible to distract the West from helping Ukraine. And if there is one thing that Russia is really, really good at, it is attempting to sow divisions across the West.

TRISTAN MENDES FRANCE: Today, Moscow doesn't have to push that hard its own propaganda.

BEARDSLEY: Tristan Mendes France, an online extremism expert, says Russia relies on like-minded local actors.

MENDES FRANCE: Those extreme-right movements in France, in Germany and in other countries in Europe is a very strong potential relay of Moscow propaganda today.

BEARDSLEY: They embrace much of Vladimir Putin's ideology.

MENDES FRANCE: It can be immigration, family values. It can be hatred of LGBT communities, all those values they have in common.

BEARDSLEY: France recently created a government agency to fight the flood of disinformation. VIGINUM tracks and exposes foreign interference. Lt. Col. Marc-Antoine Brillant heads up the 50-person military cybersecurity team.

MARC-ANTOINE BRILLANT: When in the public debate, you have foreign actors through fake accounts trying to amplify the visibility of the content in order to destabilize the functioning of a society of the republic, it's not a public debate. It's not democracy.

BEARDSLEY: Earlier this year, VIGINUM unveiled a Russia-based network of 193 websites created to spread the Kremlin's views in French, English, Spanish and German, a dormant system named Portal Kombat that could be quickly activated to saturate the information space. VIGINUM recently foiled one of its operations.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Dozens of freshly spray-painted blue stars of David covered residential buildings in Paris this week...

BEARDSLEY: When the Israel-Hamas war broke out, stars of David appeared on buildings in Paris. The graffiti was shocking. It evoked memories of the Nazi occupation and persecution of Jews. Photos of the stars went viral, but something wasn't right, says Brillant.

BRILLANT: We observed a large activity of more than 1,000 fake accounts on Twitter, trying to amplify the visibility of two pictures. And because we linked this fake account to the Russian network RRN, we could demonstrate that maybe it's a foreign interference.

BEARDSLEY: French police arrested a Moldovan couple in the act of painting the stars. They had been flown in and financed by a pro-Russian businessman. France accused Russia's FSB security service of being behind the operation. Mendes France says democracy's strengths are also what make them most vulnerable.

MENDES FRANCE: It's very difficult, when you are an open democracy, to block and to control the information space.

BEARDSLEY: The only decent defense, he says, is transparency and making public what the enemies of democracy are doing. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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