There's No Easy Fix to Fake News, And France Is No Exception

(Bloomberg) -- Emmanuel Macron promised to fight fake news, and plans to do it this week -- with a law.

Trouble is, Macron may soon learn, like a lot of other world leaders, that putting the fake-news genie back into the bottle is far from easy to do.

Himself a victim of a disinformation campaign during the 2017 French vote, Macron’s bill “to fight fake news” will be presented in parliament on Thursday and will seek to shield elections in France from the influence of fabricated rumors, whether by extremists groups or so-called alternative media like Russia Today. Social media savvy observers, however, say archaic tools like those proposed in Macron’s bill are ill-suited to stop the rapid spread of false information in the age of Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc.

“They’re fighting tomorrow’s disinformation with yesterday’s tools,” said Alexandre Alaphilippe, executive director at EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based not-for-profit organization that researches disinformation on social media and gets financing from the Open Society Foundations and Twitter. “The core issues are the mechanisms of disinformation-spreading and influence-meddling. As long as this can’t be tackled, the legal fight is tenuous.”

If it passes into law, online banners would warn users when information on social media is sponsored, and a judge could block access or delete it. Macron is keen to get the law enacted before the European Parliament vote next year because his government sees a mounting fake-news campaign by the likes of Russia Today, Sputnik and Breitbart News potentially hurting the electoral process, a French official close to the president said.

Roiling the World

Fake news has been on the minds of leaders around the world, roiling electoral processes from the U.S. 2016 presidential race to the U.K.’s Brexit referendum and Italy’s March legislative vote. Countries across the globe are struggling to rein in this unchecked flow of false, doctored or misleading information. Italy is roping in its Polizia Postale, or postal police, to stop the spread of unfounded reports on the web. Germany is relying on enforcing strong hate speech laws.

Macron’s own brush with fake news came as he sat across his far-right rival Marine Le Pen for their sole television debate in May 2017, with a volley of reports flying through social media channels alleging he had secret offshore bank accounts. A few days later as the campaign entered a “black-out” period, Macron’s was left with no way to counter the flood of false information.

Standing next to Vladimir Putin in Versailles’ Palace some time later, the French president said Russia Today and its sister company Sputnik worked “as agencies of influence and propaganda, lying propaganda” that spread “misleading information” about him during the presidential campaign.

Russia Today, which claims that the Macron government has yet to provide evidence of any misleading information it has published, is critical of his bill. The proposed law seems to be aimed at “attacking any inconvenient fact or disagreeable voice instead of actually fighting falsehoods; in essence, a tool of censorship,” the media outlet said in an emailed statement.

In a separate emailed response, Sputnik said “France doesn’t need a new law to interfere with the work of certain inconvenient media,” adding that its journalists are already barred from the French presidential palace and government bodies without “any proofs” of fake news published on its website.

No Miracle

Macron’s bill seeks to get judges and the media sector’s regulator involved in the fight against fake news. A fact-checking state-run website would be created and social media would have to pitch in by warning users when a post is sponsored -- or when someone pays to give it better visibility in a feed.

The tools appear “modest,” said Nathalie Mallet-Poujol, a member of the Montpellier University law faculty and a director of research at French public laboratory CNRS.

“There’s just no miracle solution the state could adopt,” Mallet-Poujol said. “I don’t think the answer can be only legal. It has to be part of an ensemble,” which also includes promoting ethics, more educated citizens and more responsible platforms, she said.

Also, there’s a fine line between tackling fake news and hindering freedom of speech, she said. The state-backed fact-checking website has alarmed mainstream media and opposition politicians have said it leaves France open to censorship by the government.

Facebook Help

Macron says he discussed the issue with Internet leaders like Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg during their Paris one-on-one talk last month.

In the run-up to the French elections, Facebook deleted thousands of fake accounts and offered users extras to help with fact-checking. It also ran full-page print ads in newspapers with tips on detecting fishy content. Facebook has also teamed up with local media to get reporters to fact-check posts. It highlights content its partners have flagged with a banner.

“We’re fully mobilized on this matter and are working actively and constructively with French and European authorities,” a representative for Facebook in France said in an email. “We limit the financial gains of the authors of false information, we delete fake accounts used to spread them, and we work with independent third parties on verification.”

For now, Macron’s bill falls short on several fronts, said Reporters Without Borders Secretary General Christophe Deloire.

“The aim of the bill is legitimate, but it’s not sharp enough and could soon become inoperative -- it could backfire,” Deloire said. What’s to stop someone from claiming a piece of fake information as accurate because a judge hasn’t ruled against it? he asked.

“We must invent a model, a framework for the future, for independent and verified information,” he said. Macron’s bill “doesn’t touch on that at all.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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