In press statements for the beginning of this year, French president Emmanuel Macron announced his plans for cracking down on fake news. Haunted by the controversial Macron Leaks towards the end of the presidential campaign (which he won in May last year), the new French president was expected to go after the practice early in his term. The accuracy of the online information flow is important, but Macron's solutions are seriously worrying.
In the press conference, Emmanuel Macron announced that restricting the presence of fake news online was essential to French democracy, and added:
"As you know, propagating fake news on social media these days only demands a couple of tens of thousands of euros, and can be done while remaining completely anonymous."
While it is true that you can spend tens of thousands of euros, fake news can easily be spread with no money whatsoever. All it takes on social media is for a post to go viral, in which case there is no need to sponsor the posts at all.
In order to achieve better public information, Macron wants to make transparency about who operates and runs news websites compulsory (if it sponsors content on social media), and give judges the possibility to completely delete content. His proposed bill will only apply for election periods, during which he says that public opinion should be fuelled by facts, not false information. This restriction was due to the "#MacronLeaks" which happened shortly before the second round of France's presidential election in May last year. Thousands of emails of Macron's staffers had been leaked on 4Chan and led to wild accusations.
The Reaction to #MacronLeaks Says Everything
It turns out that what followed the controversy of these #MacronLeaks is really all you need to know about why regulating fake news is a terrible idea. In a quick reaction, the French election commission, which is supposed to be impartial, strongly urged media outlets not to cover the leaks and went even further by asking them to "not relay the contents of these documents in order not to alter the integrity of the vote, not to break the bans laid down by the law and not to expose themselves to the committing of criminal offences."
The unintended consequences were more damaging to Macron than they could have been otherwise. Thousands of leaked emails, which required weeks and months of work in order to identify whether or not they were legitimate or relevant, were automatically put under rules of censorship. It should be noted as well that the administration was led by François Hollande, the then-incumbent president who had endorsed Emmanuel Macron for president.
However, the more authorities tried to restrict the media's ability to report on the leaks, the more they encouraged people to look it up themselves while creating a mysterious vibe around the whole dossier. With the free flow of information partially blocked, the unintended consequences were more damaging to Macron than they could have been otherwise. From the point of view from a Le Pen supporter: if Macron puts a red flag on these leaks, there must be something about them. As the French say: Il n'y a pas de fumée sans feu (There is no smoke without fire).
A good practical example of how the advantage of allowing all sides to research and communicate freely was the faux-pas of his own rival.
Marine Le Pen, eager to exploit the leak, alluded to the existence of an offshore bank account that Macron would have used to reduce his tax burden. Bringing this up on a nationally broadcasted television debate turned out to be a mistake because whether or not Le Pen got the idea from the leak or from elsewhere, no proof of such a claim was substantiated, and it ended up costing her credibility.
Too Much Power
Seeking the truth is not the job of the government but of those who observe the news. The general question of government isn't "who should have the power?" but "how much power should there be?" The facts are: that Emmanuel Macron clearly seeks to limit the risks for future leaks to damage his reputation for his re-election campaign; that the administration is closely linked with the authorities that put reporting bans on media outlets; that Macron's Minister of Justice had to step down because he called journalists on the phone to tell them not to report on a story; and that another two members of the government are suing a media agency because it revealed that the holiday cottage they stayed in belonged to an international narcotics smuggler.
All of these reflect badly on the legislative outreach for more control into press freedom. But far more importantly: if Macron's supporters are convinced that Le Pen's accession to power would be truly fascistic, they would be ill-advised to lay the groundwork for authoritarian lawmaking in which government decides which news is fake and which isn't.
Seeking the truth is not the job of the government but of those who observe the news. It's only in the free market of ideas that information can transparently be checked and double-checked elsewhere. Yes, this means that reported news can be false. Yes, this means that there can be conflicts of interests. But far worse than both these things are institutions which basically claim to be the Ministries of Truth. We know how that ends.