In long-feared twist, online leak rattles French campaign

By RAPHAEL SATTER Features Associated Press

Many feared this was coming.

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For months pundits and journalists worried over the possibility that a strategically timed leak could destabilize France's election, a replay of the obsessively covered disclosures that some Americans blame for scuppering Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign and many others fear are sapping popular faith in Western democracy.

Late Friday, with only minutes left before France's presidential campaign duel was due to cease fire for the weekend, it came.

Well, maybe it did. Or not.

It's hard to tell with so little time to evaluate the mass of material suddenly leaked online. And that might be the point.

All that can be said with much certainty is that shortly before midnight French time, someone on 4chan — a message board known for, among other things, elaborate hoaxes and political extremism — posted links to a large set of data purportedly taken from the campaign of Emmanuel Macron, the youthful centrist politician who is tipped to beat far-right politician Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential election Sunday. Macron's campaign swiftly confirmed that several officials had had their email inboxes pillaged and that at least some of the messages, financial data, and book keeping published to the internet was genuine.

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The timing of the leak could be seen either as idiotic or inspired.

The documents' release just before France enters a roughly two-daylong media blackout — during which politicians, journalists and even ordinary citizens are legally required to pull back from any public election talk — means that the leak may have very little impact beyond the overheated world of Twitter and Reddit. On the other hand, the publication just before France's media-political machinery shuts down for the weekend might mean that talk of the leak — regardless of its veracity — will dominate dinner table conversations as French voters make up their minds Saturday.

French officials scrambled to put a lid on the highly unusual situation. Soon after the release, France's electoral commissioned issued guidance asking French publications to refrain from covering the leak.

"Free and fair elections are at play," the statement said, adding that there could penalties, even criminal ones, for rebroadcasting forged documents.

That did little to cool the feverish coverage in many corners of social media, where far right supporters dueled with academics and journalists over the meaning of the leak.

One question being asked is how many of the documents are genuine. In an email, Macron's campaign said fakes had been interspersed with real documents. But the campaign offered no examples and had only recently insisted that none of their staffers had been hacked — an embarrassing claim in retrospect.

On the other hand, 4chan was only a couple of days ago at the origin of a crude albeit widely disseminated forgery purporting to show that Macron had an offshore bank account in the Caribbean.

The confusion and uncertainty generated by these stunts may be precisely the point.

With interest in hacking and leaks at fever pitch, almost any claim, even an anonymous one (and even one published on a forum notorious for fakery) is enough to act as a kind of internet-wide fire alarm, soaking up coverage and attention while generating little more than smoke.

Some experts saw the leak as part of a new "post-truth" reality in which fake news can crowd aside objective facts.

"Are we in a new world? Obviously," said Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland. When WikiLeaks published hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and one of Hillary Clinton's top advisers, she notes, "we at least had the luxury of time to check some of it out."

But the initially muted reaction to the contents of the Macron dump could mean that Europeans will react differently to this tactic than Americans did.

"Is it just Americans who react to every news cycle?" she asked. "I'll be curious to see if the French react in a very European way and shrug it off."

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David Hamilton, AP technology and media editor, contributed to this report.