French president Emmanuel Macron announced on Wednesday that a new law would soon be introduced to the French legislature regulating “fake news.” Macron explained that the law is meant to prevent foreign interference in French elections and “protect democracy.”
Speaking from a podium at the Élysée palace during a speech to journalists, Macron explained that if France wants “to protect liberal democracies, we must be strong and have clear rules.”
Generally speaking, the law seeks to prohibit foreign governments from placing political advertisements online. Websites would be required to report who was sponsoring any political ad. Additionally, caps could be placed on money for sponsored content.
It should be noted that Macron has a bit of personal history when it comes to fake news. During the national election cycle last year, Macron was a target of some fake news stories relating to claims of offshore accounts. In May, just days before the presidential election, Macron was accused by opponent Marine Le Pen of holding offshore accounts in the Bahamas.
The course of the French president is highly reminiscent of steps taken by US politicians following accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. In October, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would require online political advertisers to provide additional disclosures about who's paying for their ads.
There is one crucial difference between measures proposed in the US and the policies Macron wants to implement. American policymakers are concerned primarily with disclosure, and preventing foreign government attempts to covertly meddle in US political processes. Macron, on the other hand, includes the potential for the government to block specific content on various media platforms from streaming into France altogether if they form a foreign source. As the BBC reported, Macron’s law would give France's audiovisual regulator the CSA, or Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuel, additional power to "fight any destabilization attempt by television channels controlled or influenced by foreign states."
This may be turn out to be a very steep slope.
There is no doubt that the threat of foreign meddling in elections is real. The medium of the internet, especially social media platforms, have opened possibilities for information exposure that are both effective at a large scale, and which ensure a high level of concealment for users. Foreign state actors can indeed exploit These mediums. The Russian troll revelations have proven this. However, the reaction to this danger must come in the form of more responsibility for platforms, coupled with transparency - not more sweeping regulative power for governments.
Thinking long-term, if this law were to pass, it could prove to be a model for other countries imposing similar regulations, making this type of media control the standard for Europe.
It would be wise for France to consider the long-term repercussions of enabling a government agency to suppress election-related content, a move that would be the real threat to the democracies Macron speaks of defending.