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LONDON — President Macron kicked off the year by announcing the introduction of legislation to safeguard liberal democracy — in France at least — from fake news.
Twitter commentators were quick to attack him for oversimplifying the problem to make a political point. They may be right. But at its core, Macron’s instinct is the right one.
We need to rethink the rules of engagement in social media and hold accountable producers, distributors and financiers of content, without compromising on freedom of speech.
Macron’s proposal includes tougher rules for social media platforms when it comes to revealing the sources of sponsored content. It would also strengthen the authority of France’s media watchdog — the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, or CSA — to impose heavy fines on outlets who publish or distribute lies, rumors and gossip.
To be sure, it’s usually problematic when the state gets involved in defining what constitutes the truth. But liberal democracies are engaged in an uneven information war, and in the muddy trenches, it’s hard to decipher fact from fiction.
The stakes are high: our hearts and minds and the values that underpin the free and open society we take for granted. Something has to be done.
To stay on the right side of freedom of speech, 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. Macron’s legislation will have to address this.
A number of players will also need to acknowledge their responsibility for the fake news problem.
The platform giants who claim innocence are the ultimate enablers. Massive lobbying efforts are sure to be undertaken as Google, Facebook and Twitter try to push back on any legislation that would hold them accountable for the content disseminated on their platforms.
Facebook — as much as it would like to self-regulate — should not be allowed to do so. As Sandy Parakilas, a former employee who led Facebook’s efforts to fix privacy problems on its developer platform, recently pointed out in a column in the New York Times: “What I saw from the inside was a company that prioritized data collection from its users over protecting them from abuse … Lawmakers shouldn’t allow Facebook to regulate itself. Because it won’t.”
The advertising industry is another key player that has to acknowledge its responsibility. Your shampoo ads might be seen by millions of relevant consumers, but if you are also financing publishers of fake news you are part of the problem. The Internet Advertising Bureau, IAB, is taking steps in the right direction to give advertisers the tools to understand the entire value chain and how to avoid dirty digital inventory. Macron’s new law could have a huge impact if it addresses the burden of proof and stops the money flow.
It will also have to address the legally tricky question of how — in a digitally borderless world — to handle fake news that’s motivated not by money, but politics. In other words, good old-fashioned propaganda.
Macron’s legislation is clearly a response to foreign — and for now, overwhelmingly Russian — interference in electoral processes. He has publicly criticized Russian news sites RT and Sputnik but has not made clear how he intends to police them.
In the debate around this new law, we also need to consider the motor of this debacle: you and me and everybody who clicks on, reads and shares fake news.
We should of course not be legally accountable for our ignorance, but we have a personal and moral responsibility to stop and think. The good news is that several recent studies suggest that fake news had little impact on the U.S. election, making the issue, for now, one of principle more than one of politics.
To be sure, identifying the source of a fake news item isn’t exactly a straightforward business. The level of sophistication when planting and spreading stories across the internet is impressive.
The magnitude of content being produced daily also makes it a tall order to monitor and regulate. It’s not called a fake news “factory” for nothing. Promising initiatives using blockchain technology are in the making to support source identification.
The devil, as always, will be in the details. Macron will have to walk a tricky tightrope between taking action and making sure any new law doesn’t breach our freedom of speech.
But ultimately, the distribution of digital information is one of the defining challenges of our time. Macron is right to address it.
Aurore Belfrage is a technology investor with EQT Ventures, co-founder of multiple tech startups, awarded power list 2017 Women in Fintech, columnist and AI policy advisor for talent community CITY.AI