Emmanuel Macron has announced legislation to tackle ‘fake news’. The ensuing backlash shows how controversial the issue remains.
D espite the reams of public discussion over how to address the so-called “fake news” epidemic, many world leaders have been hesitant to go beyond condemnation and bring the force of law to bear on the issue. Not so for Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who is striking out resolutely with a vow to bring it under control with new legislation.
The president’s ruling En Marche party enjoys such a strong position that his proposals are all but certain to pass. The bristling reaction they have been met with since his announcement, however, show that political will is far from enough to rally public opinion around the project - let alone for it to become a viable model for other countries to adopt.
Mr. Macron’s proposals aim to tackle misinformation at election time by enforcing more transparency in digital media and blocking offending platforms.
“Thousands of propaganda accounts on social networks are spreading all over the world, in all languages, lies invented to tarnish political officials, personalities, public figures, journalists,” the president told reporters at the Elysée palace in early January, adding that “if we want to protect liberal democracies, we must have strong legislation.”
The law would force social media companies to reveal who is buying sponsored content on their platforms and impose spending limits, Mr. Macron said. The courts would also be given new powers to take down content deemed to be false, and block access to sites where it appears.
France’s media watchdog, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA), meanwhile, would be given strengthened powers to levy heavy fines on outlets which publish or distribute offending material and to “fight any destabilisation attempt by television channels controlled or influenced by foreign states”.
He underlined what he called deliberate attempts to subvert democracy by blurring the lines between truth and lies, in what many have described as a thinly-veiled reference to Russia.
Mr. Macron’s battle is in no small part a personal one, with last spring’s presidential election dogged by concerns over fake news and foreign interference.
Towards the end of his campaign, he faced claims (which many believe to be discredited) that he had a secret offshore bank account. A large-scale hack just before the vote releasing thousands of internal documents was linked to a group with known ties to the Russian government, although the Kremlin has denied any responsibility.
The president has pulled no punches in characterising the fake news issue as part of an international battle, accusing Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik of disseminating “falsehoods about me and my campaign”, describing them as “agents of influence and propaganda”.
Mr. Macron’s critics, however, are keen to remind him that there is more at stake under his proposals. Although a wide cross-section of French society and politics is sympathetic to his concerns over foreign misinformation campaigns, many are outraged over what they see as an affront to freedom of speech.
“In a democracy, better wrong information than state information,” declared the head of the centre-right Republicans’ Senate grouping, Bruno Retailleau, in a statement last week. “Only authoritarian regimes claim to control the truth,” he added. “We know what that can cost.”
Similar concerns were echoed across the political spectrum.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front and Mr. Macron’s one-time presidential opponent, called his project “highly disturbing”. “Who will decide if a report is false? Judges from the [left-wing magistrates’ trade union] Syndicat de la Magistrature? The government?” she asked in a tweet.
The firebrand leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, struck out on his blog against “the danger of draconian legislation”. “Punishment for disseminating false news is already covered by the law,” he argued, adding “who will decide the truth?”
The hashtag #InventeDesFakeNews (or MakeUpFakeNews) became a top trending topic on Twitter, as users satirised the plans by posting outlandish fake stories such as Ms. Le Pen opening a kebab shop in the Parisian suburbs.
The law against the propagation of false reports, which dates back to 1881, however, is not used to suppress misinformation on social media, according to Christelle Coslin, a lawyer specialising in Internet law. Ms. Coslin highlights the technical obstacles that such regulations often encounter when imposed without enough mind to their feasibility.
“It is more effective to consider the issue in tandem with Internet companies - it’s not clear that the law is the best tool,” she told Reuters.
Friend or foe?
Doubts over the state’s place in controlling information are widely shared by the big digital platforms which have come to epitomise the debate.
The likes of Facebook and Google have been careful to avoid commenting on Mr. Macron’s announcement, though they have often highlighted their own efforts to self-regulate and cooperate with established media to tackle fake news.
Until recently Silicon Valley has tended to portray its services as mere platforms, neutered of responsibility for their content beyond basic compliance with rules on depicting violence, sex, and so on.
Today, social media companies appear increasingly on board with reform to their legal responsibilities, though sceptics have expressed doubts over how far they will go when much of the change seems driven by concern for their public image.
In October, Facebook started rolling out a transparency tool enabling users based in North America to see sponsored posts on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger whether or not the user is part of a given advertisement’s target audience.
This came at around the same time Google, Facebook and Twitter representatives were wheeled out before the US Congress to explain how Russia-linked outlets were able to disseminate posts to tens of millions of American voters. The companies found themselves subjected to some of the most intense public scrutiny they have yet faced.
Yet even wilful cooperation from Silicon Valley may not be enough to bring about the kind of change Mr. Macron wants to see. Facebook’s grilling at the congressional hearing, for example, appeared to expose that its platform was built in such a way that tracking individual news items is incredibly difficult even for its own technicians. Facebook asserted at the time that this was more or less a necessary feature for delivering its service in the way it does.
Social media giants have themselves drawn harsh criticism over content controls. Just three days after Germany's new hate-speech law came into effect, Twitter suspended the account of a German satirical magazine, Titanic, for posts in which it mocked hate speech.
Supporters of President Macron’s plans argue that digital platforms simply cannot be trusted to deliver on the issue.
Nonetheless, the reaction to Mr. Macron’s announcement suggests that public concerns would persist beyond any hypothetical consensus over who should tackle misinformation and how. Neither government nor big organisations are anywhere close to being trusted as arbiters of truth, and Mr. Macron’s decision to come down hard on one side is unlikely to change this.