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Macron’s Plan Against Fake News. 3 Questions to Ben Nimmo.

Analyses - 3 May 2018

By Institut Montaigne

Early January 2018, Emmanuel Macron announced a new bill to counter the spread of disinformation during elections. In March, the French government shared a working document, which will serve as the basis for this bill, to MPs from La République en Marche, Emmanuel Macron’s party. Ben Nimmo, information defense fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab, analyzes this first draft. 

What do you think of the text that will serve as the basis for the French law to counter disinformation?

We are witnessing a global search for a 'toolbox' to counter the different shapes that disinformation can take. A law can be one of these tools. However, defining its limits will be important. My fear - which is not limited to the French case - is that public authorities may aim to create ‘Swiss knives’ out of these laws: single objects that are expected to respond to different forms of disinformation. I actually think it is necessary for these laws to specifically define their targets. We often talk about "fake news". But what does this term really mean? Are we talking about completely false information? Do we also include items that are 90% wrong? Propaganda and disinformation can also be a knot of facts surrounded by a web of lies. So, what is disinformation? In my opinion, it is defined by two characteristics: first, the information is false; second, the author is aware that his or her information is false, yet still decides to publish it. In other words, it is false information that is shared intentionally. 

Regarding propaganda articles, such as the ones published by Russia Today and Sputnik, the question is different. Indeed, the information published by these is rarely completely false. Instead, their articles are strongly biased. For instance, they tend to only interview experts who display radical views. But how can one prove that these articles are the result of State-led propaganda? State funding isn’t a solid enough proof. Indeed, many high-quality media are publicly funded. The Foreign Agents Registration Act in the United States is interesting: it requires evidence that a broadcaster is State-controlled. For example, if a Head of State’s statements are systematically published by a media on his or her own behalf, a relation of influence can be detected.

Is referring to a judge the best option to counter the propagation of fake news during electoral periods? 

In such situations, the judge needs to be a specialist of these issues. It is possible to prove that a piece of information is false, and that it has been intentionally shared. However, in my opinion,the 48-hour delay proposed by the current French bill might be too short for a judge to be able to do so. On the other hand, the same delay means an eternity on the Internet. The judicial solution may be a good one in some situations, yet we also need alternative forms of reaction that are adapted to the Internet and its speed. Such forms of reaction are conceivable, yet difficult to implement. The question is: who should have the ability to react at such speed? The media? Researchers? In any case, it seems to me that this should not be the government or elected officials’ role. Indeed, they are not the best judges of truth, especially when the object scrutinized is electoral news. I also believe that civil society should react in its own way - but this issue lies outside of the legislative scope we are currently discussing. 

Moreover, the French bill states that the information sent to the judge must be false for a judicial procedure to be launched. But what about biased information? For example, when Russia Today intentionally shares a quote, which is itself false, should we nonetheless authorize the launch of judicial procedures? In my opinion, the answer is no. Such cases are propaganda issues, which are particularly complex.

According to the bill, the French Higher Audiovisual Council (CSA) will be able, during elections, to either suspend or refuse the accreditation of broadcasting services  controlled by a foreign State and taken to be attempting to undermine the French nation’s higher interests and institutions. What do you make of this decision?

I think this amendment is problematic for several reasons. First, why limit this decision to electoral periods only? Then, again, the difficulty lies in proving that a media is controlled by a State. A solution can be to compare official communications with that of platforms. Indeed, Russia Today and Sputnik almost systematically directly relay up to the very words that the Kremlin uses in its statements. 

However, demonstrating that a media is actively trying to undermine a country’s interest is as complex as it sounds. How will the French Higher Audiovisual Council (CSA) manage to reach this goal? Screening the identity of ‘experts’ often interviewed by dubious media - for example, ones that only interview ultra-nationalists - could be a first step. But the question regarding these media’s goals opens too many potential answers. The difficulty of providing legally tangible proof that a piece of news is intended to destabilize a country is yet another challenge for this bill. 


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