The Real Problem of Fake News

The era of fake news has entered its second phase.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has announced that he will seek new legislation to provide the state with a “legal arsenal” that will enable it to put a lid on “fake news.” The bill, which is still in the works, reportedly would require journalistic transparency by obligating news sites to reveal their sources of funding, set limits on that funding and grant the state emergency powers whereby media outlets could be suspended when “controlled or influenced by foreign powers.”

This attempt to rein in the purveyors of fake news was inevitable. Sooner or later, public officials who have been denying and decrying the various defamations leveled against them in the guise of news reporting would decide they have had enough and aren’t going to take it anymore.

It comes as no surprise that Macron should lead the way. Just a few weeks after being elected, he went so far as to carry his fake news grievance into a press conference with Vladimir Putin, where he accused Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik of being “agents of influence and propaganda,” which spread “falsehoods about me and my campaign.”

The complaint against Russian and non-Russian fake news is, of course, not confined to France or Russia. Americans are all too familiar with the problem, and one can sympathize with Macron’s desire to strike back at his antagonists.

Indeed, he is not alone at the top; in Germany and Brazil, similar moves are afoot. And the European Commission announced in November the creation of a high-level group to advise on policy decisions focused on countering the spread of false information online.

But the attempt to regulate fake news faces real problems: Precisely how does one define what is considered to be fake? How far can such an effort go without stamping out freedom of speech, which the French constitution also guarantees?

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, who ostensibly benefited from the smears against Macron in the election — which he won by a landslide, anyway — called his proposal “very disturbing.”

“Who will decide if the information is false?” she asked.

Macron’s stance “could be just the beginning of actually censoring freedom of speech. We believe it is a very dangerous situation,” said Xenia Fedorova, director of RT’s newly launched French-language channel.

Of course, the bias is obvious. Le Pen is an opposition politician. RT is widely regarded as a tool of the Putin autocracy, and it’s ever so slightly disingenuous of Fedorova to voice such concern for freedom of speech.

But the question is valid, regardless of who poses it, and more moderate, respectable commentators are asking it, too.

“[Macron] sees fake news as really entrenching and further dividing society,” Georgina Wright, a researcher at the European Programme at Chatham House, said. “But the reality is there is no clear definition of fake news — and there lies the complexity.”

Within responsible journalistic circles, the phenomenon of fake news is also regarded as a danger to freedom, because of the official reaction it has provoked. Those who perpetrate fake news may well bring down the wrath of the state on the responsible practitioners as well.

As such, Reporters Without Borders, a watchdog on media freedom, has sought a position somewhere in-between: rejecting misinformation-mongering on the one hand, but counseling caution in legislating against it.

“We are not opposed to the principle of a law against fake news. But the point is to be able to write a law without endangering the freedom to reveal things,” the group’s chief, Christophe Deloire, told the AP.

America’s own experience with fake news and attempts to suppress it has not been a happy one. It goes all the way back to when the Adams administration enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, aimed at putting down opposition newspapers whose scurrilous attacks on the government and its chief officer constituted, in the president’s view, an existential threat to the republic itself.

However justified Adams was in wanting to rid the country of blatantly partisan newspaper publishers who cared nothing for the truth, the Alien and Sedition Acts were extremely unpopular, largely ineffective, and rated by historians as a black mark on the otherwise distinguished name of John Adams.

What, then, is to be done? Macron’s legislative proposal is expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks, and no doubt there will be a lively debate on it in France and Europe, generally. In the not unlikely event that it’s passed into law (Macron has a big majority in the parliament), its progress will be well watched in the U.S., as well.

Ultimately, if fake news is to be defeated, it is up to the consumers. People have to grow sick of being served up lies and disinformation, and cease to patronize those media outlets, and then the weed will wither of itself. And that will be more effective than any law passed by a legislature.