Thought Policing During Election Time
WITH THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT ELECTIONS COMING UP ON MAY 23RD, how do we gather solid and trustworthy information so we can vote wisely? Could disinformation affect the outcomes, like it did in the 2016 US presidential elections? France recently passed a new law to tackle fake news during election time. Opponents warn for Orwellian policies and the undermining of free speech and free media
Suing Fake News Producers
Freedom of speech and free and independent media are essential in a liberal democracy. But when accessible information is being polluted by fake news, is it acceptable for a government to step in and start regulating what counts as fact and what counts as fiction? French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that during election time citizens deserve information that is fair, clear and transparent. He himself was subjected to fake news when, during his 2017 presidential campaign, various false stories surfaced about his alleged offshore bank accounts in the Bahamas.
The new law, twice rejected by the French parliament before approved last November, allows candidates and political parties to appeal to a judge when they want ‘false information’ to be removed during the three months preceding an election. Judges will then have 48 hours to approve or disapprove this request. The law also allows the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (CSA), the national broadcasting agency, to pursue any foreign news channel they suspect is guilty of spreading fake news. Lastly, the law forces social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, to publicly disclose what is sponsored content, who is sponsoring it and where their money is coming from.
Monopoly on Truth
Supporters of the new law claim that it will effectively tackle the spreading of fake news during election time, thereby removing the burden of distinguishing the fake from the real from the shoulders of citizen. This way they will make well-informed decisions in the voting booths.
But not everyone agrees. Several critics have stated that the French state now has a monopoly on the truth, and have called the law Orwellian. A government monopoly on the truth can lead to shady thought policing.
Vincent Lanier, the head of France’s national journalists’ union (SNJ), called it a step towards censorship, not to mention hard to enforce. Among his primary concerns is where to draw the line between fake news and freedom of speech. Jerome Fenoglio, Editorial director at the French newspaper Le Monde, has also expressed his concerns, saying that although fake news should be dealt with accordingly, the current legislation carries ‘too big a risk of suppressing information in the public interest’. He goes on to say that especially during election time there should be a great deal of freedom. These are periods when important information emerges that should be accessible to the wider public promptly. A national government with a monopoly on deciding what counts as fake and real might be tempted to abuse that power.
Chris Marsdon, an attorney and professor of media law at the University of Sussex, believes that the regulation of fake news should never be the responsibility of national governments or supranational bodies like the EU alone. He believes in co-regulation, where companies demonstrate their own abilities to regulate fake news, and only if they fail to do so will political institutions do it for them.
The European Commission for example proposed a different method which they call the multi-stakeholder process, stressing the need to protect freedom of speech and let people use their ‘common sense’. With the proposed process the Commission asks social media platforms, news media, researchers and civil society organisations to collaborate to find the right solution to the problem. Each actor has its own role to play, and combined they can make a real impact in tackling fake news, but also uphold the essential pillars of a liberal democracy; freedom of speech and free media.
Nonetheless, before the European taskforce proposed this approach, the EU itself issued much-criticized websites that collected so-called fake news media outlets. Several mainstream outlets who were backlisted on these websites, protested that the selection process was random and biased.
Take Arms Against Demagogues
Ultimately, if granting a sort of monopolistic power over determining truth to national governments is too slippery a slope to trod, then we need to demand more from European journalists and the consumers of news. The European Commission taskforce has identified a path in achieving this goal: increasing media literacy. Media literacy is the capacity to access, have a critical understanding of, and interact with the media. It is key that people learn how to be critical towards the news they consume. As the New York Times recently wrote, ‘technology has given rise to an age of misinformation, but a closer look at our own social behaviour could help eliminate it’. Our current epistemology, the philosophy of how we acquire knowledge, should change in an era where there is too much news of questionable quality out there.
News consumers should ask themselves questions such as, who wrote this news, where was it originally published and why? The fast spreading of news through social media and other online media channels also demands that education change to conform to new standards. Implementing new policies on a European level to introduce Media Literacy as a subject in schools would help children to improve their understanding of the news. Also, social media platforms should be included in achieving this task. News on Facebook should be more transparent, with users being able to immediately see where the news is coming from and who paid for it. A tough task, given that their business models are based on increasing clicks and the sharing of information, which fuels the production and spreading of fake news.
In order to protect the fundamental checks and balances of democracy and effectively counter the spread of fake news, we need to demand more from both consumers and the producers of news. The task for national governments and supranational bodies like the EU is purely a supporting and guiding one. They can help implement new laws to promote more pluralism in the media landscape and improve the media literacy of their citizens. Deciding what counts as fake news and having the authority to remove it could lead to dystopian Ministries of Truth. Hannah Arendt once said that totalitarianism has a chance in societies where people start believing that nothing is true or false. There is a truth out there somewhere. Let us give people the proper tools to find it themselves.