Walking a Fine Line
- June 2018
- Natalia Domingo
Walking a fine line
Combating disinformation and upholding freedom of speech in France
Nowadays as I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed on the tram to work, I can almost always expect to come across the most ridiculous (yet attention-grabbing) headlines, from “Outbreak of Nuclear War” to “Russian hackers used Tumblr to spread ‘fake news’ during US elections.” Even the comment section on the Facebook posts are an entertainment in themselves with the amount of ludicrous ideas people share on these platforms. Sometimes I’m tempted to waste that 30-minute ride reading through these comments out of curiosity of what people have to say these days. Other times, I know better than to do something that will trigger the desire to debate with them. The reality is that, 99% of the time, that debate will go absolutely nowhere, regardless of how wrong they are. Some people use the internet to exchange ideas with others in an attempt to enhance their knowledge. Other people use the internet close-mindedly, hoping to impose their ideas on whoever is willing to agree with them.
The growing use of technology for sharing and finding information by citizens has given it an important role as a forum for political debate. The internet has granted us the ability to quickly spread ideas with a mass population and it is reshaping the way in which citizens choose to participate in democratic societies. However, while the internet, and specifically social media, have allowed the various voices in society to be heard, it has also resulted in the spreading of disinformation. This is especially true during election campaigning season as persuading the public to believe one opinion over another is ever more crucial.
The fabrication of disinformation aimed at democratic society and the electoral system increased during the United States’ 2016 presidential election, when foreign actors created fake social media accounts to sway public opinion, and France’s 2017 presidential election, when rumors were fabricated about Macron possessing offshore bank accounts. As a result, President Emmanuel Macron has embarked upon legislation that will combat the spread of “fake news” during elections by issuing license suspensions for foreign-sponsored media outlets, requiring the disclosure of sponsors’ identities, and restricting the amount of money these sponsors can fund. Additionally, the new law would allow an individual to more easily refer cases to a judge.
While it is important for the public to have access to accurate information, it is also well known that, in the past, governments have used censorship to silence media outlets and journalists who took oppositional stances on officials. I’m sure we all remember Trump’s accusations of fake news by media companies, such as CNN, every time he was criticized. But citizens have a right to criticize their government and the ambiguity in how national legislation defines “fake news” poses a potential threat to freedom of speech and the freedom of the media. Therefore, Macron will unlikely be able to implement this sort of legislation without a little resistance.
In order to prosecute someone for spreading disinformation, it must be proven that the producer knowingly developed and shared inaccurate information with a malevolent intent. But allowing the government to decide whether someone is exercising their freedom of speech or attempting to disturb public peace is a tricky task and can be easily abused. Even if a government can sufficiently draw the line between fake news and freedom of speech, the reality is that there is only so much the government can do to control the information a person is exposed to. Many producers of fake news are technologically clever and can find cracks in the system to avoid punishment for disinformation, such as publishing under anonymous accounts since the government cannot prosecute an individual whose identity is unknown.
Therefore, disinformation cannot be resolved with simply a legal solution, but rather requires an inclusive effort between governments, corporations, and citizens. Combining the efforts of these three major players can ensure diligence and enhance transparency. Majority of social media platforms hire staff who are tasked with reviewing content deemed inappropriate. These teams hold a responsibility to the public, similar to that of the government, for ensuring a safe online environment by filtering disinformation from plausible information. Their participation can also generate more accountability in censorship efforts because third-parties are assumed to be impartial to the government.
Although, we should not be so naïve to the fact that in some cases these third-parties may fail to fulfill this role, as recently seen with Facebook. Thus, we, the citizens, have the most significant role—while it is our right to express freely how we feel, it is also our duty to ensure we use these outlets in a way that is respectful of other’s opinions, as well as in the confines of law. Most importantly, we have a responsibility to ourselves to filter out plausible information from disinformation for the sake of our intellectual growth, which requires access to accurate information.
The European Commission’s Code of Practice to combat disinformation emphasizes media literacy, which can teach Europeans to assess information more critically and identify disinformation or unreliable news outlets. It seems media literacy is generally high among most internet-users, as a Reuters study found that people in France spent 10 million minutes per month on fake news websites, whereas 178 million minutes were spent on Le Monde—a more reliable news outlet. While the interactions with fake news and credible news on social media are less clear-cut, it is evident that people spend more time on the latter than the former.
Disinformation is definitely something to be wary of in a world where anyone can post anything their imagination can construct. However, President Trump’s excessive use of the term “fake news” has assumed a greater threat than is really there. Despite the increase of disinformation online, a majority of people still seem to be resorting to trustworthy sources. This means disinformation’s reach is less widespread than the government perceives and new legislation may be unnecessary. But that does not mean that we should scrap the effort as a whole. Some people remain vulnerable to disinformation, so media literacy should be an ongoing effort, rather than an area of concern primarily during election season. If France were to pursue more long-lasting efforts such as increased media literacy, rather than resorting to censorship laws, it could avoid walking the fine line of defining freedom of speech and disinformation.