Can a democratic country outlaw fake news?
France is about to find out, after President Emmanuel Macron ordered a law to quash false information disseminated around electoral campaigns.
Criticism is pouring in from media advocates, tech experts — and Kremlin-backed broadcaster RT. They say the law smacks of authoritarianism, will be impossible to enforce and is sure to backfire.
Macron’s stance “could be just the beginning of actually censoring freedom of speech. We believe it is a very dangerous situation,” Xenia Fedorova, director of RT’s newly launched French-language channel, told The Associated Press.
Yet in a world where a falsehood can now reach billions instantaneously, and political manipulation is increasingly sophisticated, Macron argues something must be done.
A congressional report by U.S. Democrats released Thursday detailed apparent Russian efforts to undermine politics in 19 European countries since 2016, using cyberattacks, disinformation, clandestine social media operations, financing of fringe political groups and, in extreme cases, assassination attempts. Macron’s own campaign suffered a big hacking attack last year, though the government later said it found no proof of Russian involvement.
Propaganda and disinformation aren’t new or unique to Russia. Author and technology historian Edward Tenner argues that fake news is as old as George Washington’s cherry tree — an enduring but untrue legend about the first U.S. president.
While democracies usually rely on defamation and libel laws to combat false publications, Macron wants more.
In a New Year’s speech to journalists, he said he’s ordering a new “legal arsenal” that would oblige news sites to reveal who owns them and where their money comes from. It could cap the money allowed for content seen as aimed at swaying an election and allow emergency legal action to block websites. The French broadcast regulator’s power would expand to allow it to suspend media seen as trying to destabilize a vote — notably those “controlled or influenced by foreign powers.”
That probably means outlets such as RT — whose coverage was seen as favoring far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in last year’s French election and which many consider a tool of the Russian government — and Sputnik, another Russian-backed outlet that drew attention for reporting a rumor during the French presidential campaign that Macron was having a gay affair.
He denied it, and beat Le Pen anyway, but never forgot.
RT’s Fedorova says they are being unfairly targeted. Speaking from RT’s gleaming French studios on the banks of the Seine River, she says she struggled to get permits to open in France, and her journalists are routinely barred from the Elysee Palace after Macron accused RT and Sputnik last year of being “organs” of Russian influence.
RT France’s coverage appears broadly similar to other French networks, with a slightly greater emphasis on street violence and migrants. The biggest difference: its extensive coverage of Syria, which stresses the views of the Russian and Syrian governments.
“RT stands for giving the floor, the platform to different opinions, and I personally believe that diversity of voices is absolutely necessary in order to have the big picture,” said Fedorova, who says RT will be watching Macron’s plan closely.
Media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders is also watching closely. It has decried fake news as undermining journalists who work hard to uncover wrongdoing and verify information, but the group is wary of Macron’s order.
“We are not opposed to the principle of a law against fake news. But the point is to be able to write a law without endangering the freedom to reveal things,” the group’s chief, Christophe Deloire, told the AP.
“Probably our democracies have to be defended in front of the fake news wave,” he said, but not “with the ways that despotic countries use.”
His group, also known by French acronym RSF, is working with partners on a potential certification system that could classify news sources according to their verification methods, transparency about financing and other criteria — and leave it up to the public to decide what to believe.
As France’s government prepares its bill, it will be learning lessons from a German law that went into effect this month cracking down on hate speech on social networks. Some fear legitimate posts by satirists or journalists are being accidentally caught up in the dragnet.
Shutting down websites can also backfire by calling more attention to them.
“The only long-term solution for the fake news problem is a more sophisticated public,” Tenner said.
“Sophisticated manipulators of facts will always find a way around whatever regulations are in place,” such as creating a front company to sponsor a website or writing “something that is misleading and inflammatory that is factually true,” he said.
Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, outlines another problem: “People like fake news. It reinforces their beliefs.”
Macron is prompting “a very valid conversation” about campaign funding and transparency. But “where it runs into trouble is when they try to define fake news,” he said.
The Macron government’s digital affairs chief is lucid about the challenges ahead.
“This is the beginning of the debate. We won’t go too fast,” Mounir Mahjoubi told the AP.
He insists governments shouldn’t remain complacent, especially with elections coming up in Italy, Russia and the U.S., and for the European Parliament next year.
“We need to ask this question,” he said, “and work all together on what can be done.”
David Rising in Berlin and Jona Kallgren in Las Vegas contributed to this report.