Wednesday

26th Jun 2019

Opinion

Macron was right: democracy must tame the internet

  • Le Pen and right-wing media tried to create a firestorm in last year's French elections (Photo: Lorie Shaull)

French president Emmanuel Macron's recent announcement of legislation to fight back against 'fake news' has been met with much scepticism in the public debate.

Critics argue that too little is known about the effects of fake news and that the risks to freedom of expression are too high.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Macron (r) with Russian leader Vladimir Putin last year (Photo: elysee.fr)

It is true that scientific enquiry about effects of digital content is only at the beginning. However, waiting for many years before acting is a luxury democracy cannot afford. The story of the US elections has starkly highlighted the risks to elections when the power of digital platforms is abused.

To highlight these risks, it is instructive to imagine all that is happening on the internet in the non-digital world.

One could imagine a demonstration by 100,000 people that gains significant attention in the media, but later it turns out that the demonstrators were robots masquerading as humans.

Or we could imagine a public discussion at which one speaker is shouted down and insulted, while another is applauded enthusiastically. Later we learn that the entire audience was paid to do this by somebody, but it is not clear by whom.

One could also imagine that a foreign government distributes leaflets in a neighbourhood: each leaflet is specifically designed to appeal to the most private dreams, fears, and aspirations of its recipients. Nobody ever sees the leaflet being distributed and nobody knows who printed them or why they were printed.

Fanciful?

It sounds fanciful, but this is the unappealing world of manipulation on the internet.

The fake demonstrators are called 'bots' (automated accounts pretending that a certain cause has major public support) and the shouters and sycophants are called 'trolls' (people who are paid by governments or companies to influence debates on social media). The distributor of highly targeted anonymous leaflets is Facebook.

In the past, a government could not reach a targeted audience of 10 million people in a country on the other side of the world at a cost of only $100,000 with nobody noticing, as Russia did last year in the US.

One could not profile millions of voters quickly and cheaply, because there was no internet where they left their traces.

Research suggests that once you have left more than 300 likes on Facebook, the company will know you better than your husband or wife. That is an election campaigner's dream, but it becomes democracy's nightmare when it is used by those who undermine democracy.

Today elections can be influenced through digital action. Undecided voters in swing states can be specifically targeted. Social divisions can be exacerbated. Vicious rumours can be spread at the last moment before voting starts.

All this from anywhere, by anybody, at little costs and zero transparency.

Action

Macron is right to take action.

Democracy has always been concerned with the way public discourse is organised - one only needs to think of editorial standards for media or public broadcasting, which is held to high standards of pluralism and balance.

That is why it cannot be complacent when public discourse changes dramatically.

Macron's speech may have been unfortunate in putting the fight against 'fake news' at the centre of his announcement, as this makes him easily accused of trying to 'police the truth', which is a reasonable concern.

In last year's presidential elections far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and right-wing media tried to create a social media firestorm around a falsified document which suggested that Macron had an offshore bank account.

However, at the heart of his suggestions are not fake news but the targeted propaganda that hostile governments and anti-democratic forces spread on the internet.

In response, Macron proposes that digital ads display who financed them and that there should be spending limits during political campaigns.

Sensible

These are sensible proposals that transfer regulation which already exists in the non-digital world to the digital realm.

He also proposes that France's media authority may suspend agreements with foreign TV stations during elections if they engage in anti-democratic propaganda.

It is understandable that the French state should not provide its public goods - airwaves, digital connections - to actors that undermine French democracy.

He also proposes that judges could block stories and websites that propagate fake news during elections.

This is more sensitive as here the question of 'policing the truth' comes into play. There is a legitimate interest to push back against orchestrated last-minute falsifications, but such an action would need to be narrowly defined.

Once published, the exact legislative proposals will need to be carefully studied, but overall Macron's announcement is welcome.

Democrats should not wait and see how democratic institutions are being dismantled in front of their eyes. Democracy has a right to self-defence.

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based NGO

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Macron vows law against fake news

French president Emmanuel Macron has promised legislation to block the spread of fake news, as part of a broader effort to protect liberal democracies from Russian propaganda.

EU-Vietnam trade deal a bad day for workers' rights

Behind the smiles and handshakes, the signature of the EU-Vietnam trade and investment deals agreed on Tuesday and to be signed this week have dire consequences for human well-being and our ability to prevent climate and ecological breakdown.

Council of Europe vs Russia: stay or go?

We have reached the point where Russia threatens to leave the Council of Europe and cease to be party to the European Convention on Human Rights.

News in Brief

  1. EU universities to share students, curricula
  2. Migrant rescue ship loses Human Rights Court appeal
  3. Denmark completes social democrat sweep of Nordics
  4. Johnson offers 'do or die' pledge on Brexit
  5. Weber indirectly attacks Macron in newspaper op-ed
  6. EU to sign free trade deal with Vietnam
  7. EU funding of air traffic control 'largely unnecessary'
  8. Share trading ban looms as Swiss row with EU escalates

Six takeaways on digital disinformation at EU elections

For example, Germany's primetime TV news reported that 47 percent of political social media discussions were related to the extreme-right AfD party, when in fact this was the case only for Twitter - used by only four percent of Germans.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  4. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  6. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  7. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  8. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  9. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate

Latest News

  1. EU moves to end car-testing 'confidentiality clause'
  2. EU parliament gives extra time for leaders on top jobs
  3. Europe's rights watchdog lifts Russia sanctions
  4. EU-Vietnam trade deal a bad day for workers' rights
  5. EU 'special envoy' going to US plan for Palestine
  6. Polish judicial reforms broke EU law, court says
  7. EU study: no evidence of 'East vs West' food discrimination
  8. Russia tried to stir up Irish troubles, US think tank says

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  2. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  3. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  6. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  11. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  12. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us