How we debunked rumours that Macron has an offshore account

After the presidential debate between candidates Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron held on May 3, shady documents about an offshore account supposedly held by Macron started circulating on social media.
After the presidential debate between candidates Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron held on May 3, shady documents about an offshore account supposedly held by Macron started circulating on social media.

As France's presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen faced off in a bruising televised debate on May 3, a rumour that Macron had a secret offshore account spread like wildfire on social media. Two hours before the debate, a forum known to have shared fake news during the US presidential election started circulating “documents” supposedly proving the existence of such an account. And when Le Pen alluded to it during the debate, interest on social media skyrocketed. We take a closer look at what happened.

The two documents that got Twitter in a tizzy

On Wednesday, shortly before 11:30pm Paris time, a frenzy swept across Twitter. Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate for the French presidency, had just insinuated that her rival may have some cash stashed away in a tax haven. During their ferocious debate live on French TV, she said: “I hope we will not find out, Mr Macron, that you have an offshore account in the Bahamas”.

Using the hashtag #MacronGate, some 7,000 Twitter users promptly shared images of two documents that supposedly identified Macron as the owner of an offshore account in the Caribbean.

The first document, dated May 4, 2012, purported to be a 15-page operational contract for the creation of a limited liability company (LLC) called “La Providence”. Macron, the company's supposed owner, was cited on the very first line of the contract.

The second document appeared to be a piece of official correspondence documenting a bank transfer from “La Providence” to an account at First Caribbean Bank, based in the Cayman Islands, a well-known tax haven.

The combined documents were designed to suggest that Macron had created the company for purposes of tax evasion. They were posted online at 7pm French time on the US-based forum 4chan, two hours before the debate began.

So, are these real documents?

Right off the bat, several things about these documents raise red flags. First of all, when you zoom in on the LLC contract, Macron’s signature seems to have been photoshopped: his first name, “Emmanuel”, is much sharper than the surname “Macron”. This inconsistency in image quality shouldn’t occur in a document that has been scanned or photographed.

When you zoom in on the bank document, it also looks like it was hastily photoshopped using different sources.

Moreover, the bank document says it should contain two pages -- but page two is missing.

This video, made by FRANCE 24, shows how the text of the bank letter was a "layer" that was added onto the blank letterhead page.

Furthermore, in the original PDF-format file that was published on 4chan, the text of the letter exists as a separate "layer" that was added onto the blank letterhead page using Photoshop or a similar digital editing program. The anonymous 4chan contributor who posted the documents on May 3 subsequently published what he or she said was a better-quality JPEG image of the document - in the JPEG format any trace of manipulation disappears.

The France 24 Observers team contacted First Caribbean Bank and sent their fraud department the documents. We will update this piece to include any response from them.

Our analysis does not prove that Macron doesn’t have an offshore account. However, we can establish that these documents have been manipulated and certainly do not offer proof that Macron opened such an account.

Tracking the rumour across social media

1. Documents published on 4chan, a well-known conspiracy network

The documents were originally published at 7pm French time on the 4chan forum, a site that is frequented by conspiracy theorists where anonymous users can upload photos. The user who uploaded the documents, via a proxy in Latvia, claimed that he sent the document to “hundreds of journalists”, but that not a single one replied.

He said he uploaded the documents because he wanted to reveal where Macron was hiding his money. He also asked people to share the documents widely under the hashtag #MacronCacheCash to dissuade French voters from casting their ballots for Macron in the second round of the presidential election on May 7.

2. The documents were widely shared by websites that spread false information during the US presidential election

What happened next? Well, after they were first posted online on 4chan, the documents were shared by Disobedient Media, a website launched by William Craddick that claims to be an “investigative” news source.

Disobedient Media has already played a large role in the propagation of several big stories that were later debunked. For example, Craddick widely shared the “PizzaGate” scandal that targeted Hillary Clinton during the 2016 race for the White House. Craddick alleged that Clinton’s former campaign manager, John Podesta, was involved in a pedophile ring that also included the manager of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington.

The impact of Disobedient Media’s article about the alleged Macron documents mushroomed when they were shared by Jack Posobiec -- a former member of Citizens for Trump, a group of activists who supported Donald Trump’s candidacy for the White House, and a subscriber to many conspiracy theories. Posobiec tweeted the article at 20:55 pm, just before the debate began.

Posobiec’s tweet about the documents was shared almost 3,000 times. The graphic below (made by Nicolas Vanderbiest, a Belgian professor who monitors nationalist Twitter networks) shows the impact that Posobiec had in spreading the rumour.

3. Widely circulated by both English-language and French-language accounts that are pro-Trump and pro-Russia

The false information spread like wildfire until about midnight (as shown by the graph created by Nicolas Vanderbiest, a Belgian blogger and a researcher at the University of Louvain).

Vanderbiest spoke to France 24.

I study the trends in what we call the ‘patriosphère’-- Twitter networks that regularly share articles from media sources financed by the Russian government and who champion a nationalist agenda. At around midnight on Wednesday, I identified about 213 French-language accounts that had shared the documents. 88 of them (or 41%) regularly share links to media outlets like Russia Today or Sputnik.

It’s the first time during this French presidential election that we’ve seen such a high number of “patriosphere” accounts sharing rumours meant to discredit a candidate.

Moreover, several accounts identified as “Pro-Trump” were tweeting in French on Wednesday -- sometimes with noticeable grammatical errors.

What happened next?

On Thursday, Le Pen said during an interview with RMC radio station that “she didn’t have proof of an account in the Bahamas”. If she did, she said she would have asked Macron about it.

“I don’t want us to discover these things too late,” Le Pen said. “What, so we don’t even have the right to ask him anymore?”

In an interview with France Inter radio station, Macron was asked if he had an offshore account. He responded that he had never had an account in a tax haven and that Le Pen had “launched her troops on the internet” to spread the rumour.

French radio and TV network France Info confirmed that Macron was going to file a complaint for “propagation of false information destined to have influence on the election”. The Paris prosecutor announced that an investigation was being opened into the matter.