French President Emmanuel Macron said people spreading fake news online should be held accountable and possibly brought to justice, in an issue that is becoming even more significant before the country’s presidential election in April.
In Paris on Tuesday, Mr Macron warned against the threat to democracy caused by online misinformation and fake news.
He suggested new laws should allow internet platforms, influencers and people receiving attention online to be held accountable in France, just as journalists are.
“It must be the same for foreign media, which are authorised to circulate news on the French territory,” Mr Macron said.
An 1881 law established press freedom in France while introducing rules against defamation and hate speech.
Mr Macron also warned that western democracies are not strong enough to face “propaganda actors financed by foreign authoritarian regimes, which do not comply with accountability procedures and journalistic ethics".
“We must also know how to protect ourselves against foreign interference,” he said.
In 2017, a hack and a massive document leak hit Mr Macron’s presidential election campaign just two days before his victory.
Mr Macron has received a report he commissioned in October over possible consequences of fake news, including last year’s January 6 riot at the US Capitol.
The report released on Tuesday made recommendations, from teaching children to question what they see in social media to better protecting elections against foreign interference and penalising those who disrupt public order by spreading fake news.
Sociologist Gerald Bronner, head of the committee in charge of the report, said any moves must be balanced with the need to preserve the freedom of expression.
“Our recommendations therefore are not meant to eradicate any news-related problems, but to limit the spread of contents that are damaging to democratic life, to deter malicious behavior, to sanction illegal practices,” Mr Bronner said.
Social science researcher Laurent Cordonier, a committee member, said “a small number of fake, misleading news can have serious consequences” and can radicalise certain groups.
“That’s what we saw, for example, with the events at the Capitol in the United States,” Mr Cordonier said.
The French government last year formed an agency to combat foreign disinformation and fake news.