Macron faces criticism after proposal to combat fake news

French president has set out a raft of ideas to fight the publication of suspect content

French President Emmanuel Macron (2ndL) is welcomed by China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi upon his arrival at Beijing Capital Airport, Beijing, China January 8, 2018. REUTERS/Ludovic Marin/Pool
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French president Emmanuel Macron has proposed laws to fight the spread of fake news, including granting judges emergency powers to ban publication of suspect content.

The proposed laws would cover both social media and traditional media platforms. Officials warned of the heightened dangers of fabricated information during election periods, claiming more powers were necessary "in order to protect democracy".

The legislation would include emergency powers to remove content or block websites considered to be pushing disinformation. It would also make the purveying of fake news punishable with fines of up to $50 million (Dh133m) in extreme cases.

It would also push for greater transparency by forcing websites to acknowledge how they are financed, and the amount of money they could potentially receive would be capped.

During a new year's address to journalists at the Elysee Palace, Mr Macron vowed to present the legislation in order to combat the spread of fake news, which he claimed threatened liberal democracies. "If we want to protect liberal democracies, we must be strong and have clear rules," he said.

Mr Macron’s proposals have been attacked by Marine Le Pen, the far-right politician he beat in last year’s presidential election. She tweeted the government was “muzzling its citizens”. She added: “Who will decide if a piece of news is fake? Judges? The government?”

It was not only the far right that was critical, senior conservative senator Bruno Retailleau said: “In a democracy, misinformation is better than state information", and that "only authoritarian regimes try to control the truth".

One of the potential legislation’s main points of contention is what exactly constitutes fake news. In an article for Politico website, Aurore Belfrage, a technology entrepreneur, said the first challenge was defining the offence.

“Macron’s proposal will have to include a workable definition of fake news. The expression is quickly becoming watered down to a point where it can mean anything; from an argument someone disagrees with to carefully crafted sinister lies that set out to change the course of democratic processes.

“The devil, as always, will be in the detail. Macron will have to walk a tricky tightrope between taking action and making sure any new law doesn’t breach our freedom of speech.”

Mr Macron’s En Marche! party enjoys a sizable majority in the National Assembly but could encounter wider opposition, including pressure from a media backlash.

France is not the first country to propose such legislation. Last year, the German government passed laws obliging social media sites to remove “obviously illegal” posts or face fines of more than £44m. The law gives the networks 24 hours to remove flagged content.

However, the German legislation drew criticism last week after one of the first accounts taken down under its authority was Titanic – a satirical magazine. The German government said on Monday it would review the legislation.

It was not only Mr Macron's political opponents who criticised the move, Alexander Clarkson, lecturer of German and European studies at Kings College London, said there simply is not the understanding for such a proposal to work.

“This is a completely new social space. We don’t know where it is going; it’s difficult to work out how to control it.

“This is driven by the themes of the day, but alternative voices, which are often dangerous, usually find a way through anyway”.

There are also practical challenges to the proposals. Notably the nature of social media sites where fake news finds some of its greatest reach. As Charlie Beckett, director of the London School of Economics Truth, Trust and Technology Commission said, social media sites like Facebook and YouTube are “not conventional publishers”.

"Firstly, the volume of material is exponentially greater. Facebook or Twitter would grind to a halt if it checked everything before publication," he said.

“Secondly, the material is posted by individuals. Some of these are proxies - often anonymous, fake or automated accounts. Do you close these accounts or merely censor individual pieces of content?”

“Thirdly, a lot of the disruptive material is not always clearly 'fake' or extremist material. Much of it distorts or manipulates information in a way that is misleading or provocative, but how do you distinguish that from the tendentious and aggressive but legitimate content that appears in, say, the UK tabloid press or the speeches of the US president?”

Mr Beckett warned: “You can help identify better information and expose false material, but in the end the flows of information on the internet can only be influenced, not controlled.”