Friday night, just ahead of the presidential election in France, 9 GB of documents appeared on Pastebin, posted by a profile called EMLEAKS. It contained leaked files from Emmanuel Macron’s election campaign, already the front-runner in the contest between himself and Marine Le Pen for the presidency. The dump of data was shared on WikiLeaks, and quickly became the subject of conspiracy theory mythologizing.
What could the needle inside this 9 GB haystack be? Scandalous back room deals, compromising affiliations? Perhaps somewhere in the mix would be clue to understanding who the until-recently obscure and deliberately mysterious Emmanuel Macron truly was.
This seemed to be the National Front’s (FN) strategy all along. Initially, it was far from certain that Macron would be the winner. His close tie with Le Pen in the primaries could easily have ended up in a dead heat. In that case, the FN would have to keep their trump cards concealed until the end. An 11th hour revelation might just have sown the right amount of doubt and suspicion over the centrist candidate, Macron, to grant Le Pen a slim Sunday victory.
This was the soft totalitarianism Le Pen put on display in the only debate with Macron last Wednesday. Just as Macron was closing up the final remarks of the evening, about to pass it over to the moderators, Marine Le Pen jabbed him with a sly, “Merci, Mr. Hollande!” effectively giving herself the last word, and casting her opponent as an equivalent of the current disappointing president at exactly the moment when he would be unable to respond.
Two days later, amid the leak of Macron’s files by Russian hackers, with less than 48 hours before polls closed, the National Front was presented with a final opportunity for a surprise attack. However, instead of instigating skepticism toward Macron and costing him votes in these final hours, the tactic simply failed. It failed because France already had an established protection against such slick maneuvering — a policy of silence.
The day before every election, France enters a period of mandated election silence. All political commentary in the media is halted to give voters a chance to carefully weigh the decision before them. After catching word of the hack into Macron’s files, the French Election Commission published a statement reminding the electorate that posting or re-posting comments on the leaked files could be basis for criminal prosecution. It asked both media organizations and voters to exercise restraint and abstain from including fraudulently obtained materials in their final deliberations.
As if expecting the unexpected, the National Front sprang into gear following the leak. Like clockwork, the vice president of the party, Florian Philippot, tweeted a mere 20 minutes before midnight on Saturday, “Will #MacronLeaks teach us something that investigative journalism has deliberately killed? It’s shocking, this shipwreck of democracy.” This was Philippot’s equivalent of Le Pen’s “Merci, Mr. Hollande.”
However, the 11th hour tactic seemed a particularly poor weapon against the invulnerable discipline of the French electorate. Election silence meant that gossip and anxieties spread slowly — if at all. Uncertainty over the leaks just didn’t catch on, as Le Monde, Libération, Le Point and other publications simply refused to publish anything related to the files.
This was a striking reversal of the scenario that befell the US when FBI Director James Comey published a letter on Oct. 28, fomenting new suspicions concerning Clinton’s private server. Voters were never given a quiet moment to digest and in the middle of all the anxiety and tumult, they were forced into the voting booths with fresh frustrations and reignited confusion.
Presently, the Supreme Court of the United States considers media-wide election silence to be an infringement on the First Amendment. However, as the French election has shown, silence is one of the only remaining protections we have against manipulation in an increasingly fragmented and uncertain media landscape.
As the US is still sorting out the extent of foreign meddling in its election, perhaps following the example of France, Canada, Australia — even Stanford — in campaign silence might be the way to bolster confidence in its elections. Insufficient information makes for bad decision making, but an unceasing stream of sensationalism can be just as misleading.
Clearly, there are multiple factors at play. In the United States, a firm constitutional commitment to free speech along with perverse commercial incentives in the media make for a perfect storm which prevents sober reflection on the implication of publishing certain stories and in turn ensures that the decisions made by voters do not always come from careful and individual reflection.
It shouldn’t be controversial that voters are supposed to make their own decisions without someone telling them what to think. It’s a sad world where Fox News and CNN are held to be the icons of free speech and any temporary abstention from commentary is an assault on civil liberty. In our environment of constant media cacophony, silence isn’t an impediment; it may be the only thing that can reintroduce true democratic choice and integrity back into our elections.
Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’ stanford.edu.