Saturday

7th Dec 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 20 years of archives. 30-day 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.

Does EU have role in stopping backsliding in Georgia?

The EU's eastern neighbourhood is in flux. The collapse of the pro-reform government in Moldova and the stagnation of anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine was recently followed yet by another political crisis in Georgia.

News in Brief

  1. Greece denies access to fair asylum process, report says
  2. Report: Self-regulation of social media 'not working'
  3. Turkey: Greek expulsion of Libyan envoy 'outrageous'
  4. Merkel coalition may survive, says new SPD co-leader
  5. Von der Leyen Ethiopia visit a 'political statement'
  6. Over 5,500 scientists ask EU to protect freshwater life
  7. Iran defies EU and UN on ballistic missiles
  8. Committee of the Regions: bigger budget for Green Deal

EU investment bank 'wide open to abuse by fraudsters'

Fundamental reforms are needed if the EIB is to become more accountable, democratic and transparent. Establishing a firm grasp on corruption to ensure that public money no longer feeds corrupt systems is a vital first step.

European beekeeping in crisis

Europe's bee population is dying. The number of pollinator species threatened by extinction is increasing each year, and human activity is the main cause.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  5. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture

Latest News

  1. Russia makes big promises to Arctic peoples on expansion
  2. UK election plus EU summit in focus This WEEK
  3. Migrants paying to get detained in Libyan centres
  4. Searching for solidarity in EU asylum policy
  5. Will Michel lead on lobbying transparency at Council?
  6. Blood from stone: What did British PR firm do for Malta?
  7. EU Commission defends Eurobarometer methodology
  8. Timmermans warns on cost of inaction on climate

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  2. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  3. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us