12 January 2018, Paris – Last week, Emmanuel Macron announced a future law against the spreading of “fake news”. By aiming for a rather cynical announcement effect, his proposals exemplify an actual lack of interest for a matter which, however, needs to be addressed seriously. The spreading of “fake news” as a symptom of distortion in public debates is caused by the commercial surveillance system of the big platforms – with which the established political parties perfectly got along so far.
Emmanuel Macron proposes that during election period a judge, if asked to, should be able to censor “fake news1we suggest defining “fake news” as information presented as serious and objective, but deliberately falsified or misrepresented.” by any means, up to and including the blocking of a website.
With regard to current law, the interest for such proposals is especially dubious. The Law on the Freedom of the Press of 29 July 1881 already prohibits (even outside election period) the spreading of intentionally false information which defames someone or disturbs – or might disturb – public order in France2See articles 27 and 29 of the Law on the Freedom of the Press of 29 July 1881.. Thus, beyond such kind of information, it seems very unclear what kind of “fake news” Macron wants to tackle.
Furthermore, the Law on Confidence in the Digital Economy of 2004 lays down that, in general, a French judge may oblige any hosting service, or failing that, any telecommunications operator, to take “all measures necessary to prevent or to end harm” caused by illicit content 3See article 6, I, 8 of the Law on Confidence in the Digital Economy of 2004.. The scope of this power is actually dangerously wide and hence, of course, covers content deletion as well as the blocking of an entire website.
Obviously, M. Macron’s proposition solely aims for an announcement effect and does neither seek to tackle the spreading of “fake news”, nor the fundamental problem of which it is a symptom. As a consequence, it is even more important that we consider the regulation of online platforms as serious as it is.
“Fake news”: symptom of a wide-spread distortion of online debates
Emmanuel Macron’s proposal is based on the idea that “nowadays, a couple of thousand euros is enough to effectively spread false information on social networks”. Thereby, he ignores the debate’s fundamental issue: it is the big social network’s generally accepted business model itself which favors the (free) spreading of information distorting public debate – including fake news (and that all year, not just during election period).
Which content displays on your Facebook newsfeed, or which videos are suggested to you on YouTube, is defined by those platforms themselves. To monetize their services in the most profitable way, their business model has every interest in favoring certain texts, images or videos. In the first place, by spotlighting content which matches with the shared interests of a specific category of users, they are automatically able to profile other users also seeing this content.
As a result, once a user is classified, the platform can fine-tune that user’s profile by showing him or her more and more precise content, enclosing the user in a more and more restricted bubble. Once identified, the user will then again serve the platform by spreading him or herself that arbitrarily assigned content – and inevitably contribute to the restriction of other users’ freedom of choice.
At the same time, the platforms also have interest in pushing “clickbait” content: short, blunt and without any intention to contribute to relevant discussion, but merely to attract the user’s attention. The quick and easy spreading of that kind of content provides many opportunities to analyse the users’ interaction in order to shape more precise profiles.
In either case, the model of targeted advertising necessarily excludes the most subtle and qualified, but often the less shared opinions (as they are of interest to individuals which tend to be “too diverse” to be precisely targeted) from the debate. Once these positions are discarded, the propagation of caricatural positions being little thought-out, provocative or willingly misleading can hardly be stopped.
Lastly, the model of targeted advertising not only distorts public debate, but also functions as an instrument of choice for campaigns of political propaganda (see Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Brexit vote and Trump’s election as alarming examples). The picture is complete.
The spreading of false information is only the symptom of a much wider problem caused by targeted advertising. The quality of public debate depends on weither it can take place in a neutral space, where the whole range of opinions is not torn apart by business considerations. Emmanuel Macron’s proposal only seeks to treat the symptom, and that in the most absurd way. As a consequences, we should find a remedy ourselves.