Sunday

24th Mar 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

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  • 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

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