PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced his determination to take on so-called fake news, false pieces of information that are published in the media to reinforce a political agenda or a school of thought, can mislead public opinion, and can even change the way people vote. Macron has talked of controlling the truthfulness of information and of introducing laws allowing the state to take punitive action, at least during electoral periods.
Fake news is one of the poisons of democratic life in the way that hurtful village rumors undermine our social well-being. Freedom of the press lets us say anything and everything, and that's something to generally be glad about. But it also makes it possible to invent information so that a certain point of view prevails among undecided or poorly-informed voters.
It's important to keep in mind, though, that fake news didn't start with Donald Trump or with the pro-Brexit campaign. Nor is Emmanuel Macron — the subject of various unsubstantiated claims, particularly during his run for the presidency — the first victim in the history of fake news. We just need to think back a few decades, when a certain French news outlet claimed that there was no such thing as Soviet gulags (sending the unfortunate Victor Kravchenko to court) or, later, that Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago had been written by the CIA.
In fact, it's almost impossible to mention a single period of democratic history that didn't have its share of fake news. There are endless examples of shameless lies invented to serve a specific cause and then passed on by the press. But it works just as well with people. And it's worrying to notice that Emmanuel Macron was so affected by the false rumors spread about his private life — as if that wasn't the lot of all politicians in a campaign — that he now needs legislation to avenge these affronts.
If you can't bear the fact that the press writes about your (nonexistent) offshore account in the Bahamas or about your (nonexistent) Rolex, you'd be better off avoiding public life altogether, a life where hatreds die hard and the air is always stale. Anyone whom the media has in its sights for political reasons will see his or her life be rewritten by disinformation and be powerless to stop it.
Unless the blows constitute a clear offense against him (anti-Semitism, homophobia), a fake news victim is pretty much defenseless. His "right of reply," a practice that is complicated and rarely used, has little value. The best option is to ride out the storm — the truth always comes out eventually. In the end, we find out how The Gulag Archipelago was really written, or that the person who'd been presumed guilty by the press is innocent after all. In such cases, though, the denial usually goes unnoticed and the incriminating writers get off scot-free.
Don't forget that freedom of the press is what makes it possible to spread lies.
So why this sudden interest in fighting against the oh-so-unbearable fake news? Why is it more important to do something about it now than it was in the past? Has fake news taken on such an unprecedented scale that we need to tackle it with such urgency?
Don't forget that freedom of the press is what makes it possible to spread lies. The two are intertwined, and at the end of the day, the freedom to speak inconvenient truths is worth the risk of dealing with certain untruths.
Reading the news — Photo: Roman Craft
Social media has not only made it easier to share; it's also made spreading fake news that much easier, and with anonymity. One can throw any claim out there without having to take responsibility for it. At the same time, there still are certain schools of thought — the Communists in the past, populists nowadays — that are capable of reinventing their own "reality" under the pretext that the official one can't possible be right, as 1984 author George Orwell so poignantly showed.
It's tempting to imagine laws that would punish purveyors of fake news. But could that be done without establishing a thought police? Who, after all, will be in charge of deciding what constitutes fake news, and according to which criteria? And what sort of inquisitor will this require? Will it be capable of spotting the lies across the political spectrum, and not just among those despised by the mainstream opinion? Will all parties, all schools of thought, be able to demand justice in the face of fake news spread about them? Unlikely.
The French president seems convinced that this is a fight of pure reason vs. populist post-truth. But it's a lot more complicated than that. And if we fall into the trap of imaging it's that simple, we'll end up creating a tool — and a seemingly virtuous one at that — which will only serve to shut down opponents.
Because, at the end of the day, and this is the crucial question, what do we actually call fake news? We are shown examples of conspiracy theories, of untenable promises made on the campaign trail, of alarming warnings ("ISIS will infiltrate the wave of migrants," for instance), or statements that lean too much on one side of the political spectrum or the other… These examples show that we are confusing objective fact with opinion. A conspiracy theory is nothing more than an opinion.
When reading the sites that do demand legislation against fake news, it appears very clearly that what they're hoping to get is something that will punish inconvenient opinions. This is the danger behind such legislation. It's not the law maker's job to separate truth from lie, nor to say which opinion is right and which is wrong.
We shiver at the thought of who would be in charge of deciding what is fake news and by which criteria. Society can defend itself against hoaxes as well as it can create them. But to want the law to fight against such perversions is to have a misplaced love of freedom, because at the end of the day, it carries the risk of creating a thought police.
See more from Opinion / Analysis here