Back in January, France’s President Macron warned that he would soon be presenting legislation to clamp down on ‘fake news’. Now, fake news (and, specifically, Russian disinformation) is (so to speak) a real phenomenon: It could pose genuine problems (most likely in places such as the Baltic States) but there’s a clear risk that in most countries the cure for fake news could be more dangerous than the disease.
As I mentioned in a post that month, “quite who decides what is—or is not—fake news is an interesting question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes and all that”.
That’s not an issue that has gone away, and nor have Macron’s plans, which have now been unveiled.
Bloomberg News has some details:
[If Macron’s legislation passes], 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.
Interesting (to repeat that adjective) to see Breitbart included in that list.
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.
State-backed fact-checkers. What could go wrong?
The media have widely panned the law, both for threatening freedom of speech and for fostering confusion. “The state should not transform itself into a ministry of truth,” journalist Pierre Haski told Le Parisien. “This law poses a real risk, not because it is oppressive, but because of [potential] perverse effects in its implementation. It’s going to be really confusing.
Under the circumstances, “confusing” is a very diplomatic word. A small sign of things to come, perhaps.
Meanwhile, the New York Times has some background. It reports concerns among the press. That’s to be expected, but this caught my eye:
Journalists, an exasperated Mr. Macron told a television interviewer last fall during a school visit, “are too interested in themselves, and not enough in the country.” Journalists, he said, “don’t interest me, it’s the French who interest me. That’s what you’ve got to understand.”
Those are unexceptional remarks until you start to think what, on a dark interpretation, they could mean.