France moves to fight the 'manipulation of information' instead of 'fake news'

Much of the global conversation around “fake news” has centered on the United States. Yet it increasingly seems that actions in the European Union may have a more lasting effect on the misinformation ecosystem. For that reason, this fortnightly report summarizes press coverage on the topic from or about the EU. To give Poynter readers perspectives they may not have encountered yet, we’ll be prioritizing articles written in languages other than English.

The politics of fake news

The staged death of Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist living in Kiev known for his critical views of the Kremlin, made headlines all over Europe.

Although Babchenko and Ukrainian secret services claimed his death was staged in order to catch his alleged Russian hitman, several publications reacted critically. Deutsche Welle and The Guardian, for instance, wrote that the episode risks permanently damaging the media’s credibility.

Meanwhile, France continues to be the principal political laboratory in Europe for legislative acts against the dissemination of fake news.

After the French Constitutional Council published its opinion on a law against misinformation drafted by President Emmanuel Macron’s government, the Cultural Affairs Committee of Parliament debated and amended the text. The law now aims at fighting the “manipulation of information” instead of “fake news” per se.

Bruno Studer, a deputy of La République En Marche and rapporteur of the law, explained that the slight change of wording should help defend the freedom of the press, for instance, to produce satirical content. The Parliament will discuss the bill in plenary session on June 7.  

Although the French government claims it is striking a balance between the prerogatives of the press and the need to tackle disinformation, intellectuals continue to criticise the actions of the Elysee. François-Bernard Huyghes, director at Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques, argued that the law will further polarise the political landscape between the holders of “truth”, on the one side, and anti-systemic forces, on the other, during elections.

Moreover, he claimed that it still unclear to what extent specific opinions diffused through social networks will be considered disinformation. France Tech, an association of 400 tech companies and by the researchers of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, expressed similar concerns. French writer and media professional Charles Cosigny warned that the law could empower corporate powers to limit the freedom of expression.

Deutschlandfunk report revealed that the Swedish civil defense authority MBS is set to inform its citizens through large-scale communication campaigns about internal and external “threats” before the general elections on September 9. According to the German media, authorities have already sent out leaflets to 4.8 million families in the country that outline potential crises related to geopolitical dynamics and fake news.

"States and organisations are already using misleading information in order to try and influence our values and how we act. The aim may be to reduce our resilience and willingness to defend ourselves”, the document says. The leaflet also informs citizens on how to defend themselves from misinformation.

Producing and tackling fake news

In Italy, Punto Zero published a new report called “Persuasori Social” (“Social persuaders”), which focuses on the issues of transparency and democracy in the context of digital electoral campaigns.

The report aims to provide solid advice to policymakers on how to deal with fake news and targeted advertisement. It takes a practical stance and criticises overly strong public interventions of public authorities in the media and social media spheres.

French sociologist Férald Bronner published a comic book titled “Crédulités & Rumeurs.” The publication represents a rare example of graphic solutions-oriented journalism and is aimed at a younger audience. Bronzer also opposes “legislative actions” against the spread of misinformation and calls instead for a “pedagogical revolution.”  

The director of Altraeconomia Pietro Raitano claimed that the spread of misinformation is linked to the precarious working and economic conditions of professional journalists. Raitano argued that until information is freely available on the internet, it will be hard to ensure quality information has the upper hand.

Debating fake news: op-eds, commentaries and academic debates

On “The Conversation,” Arnaud Mercier and Cécile Swiatek (University Paris II) argue that the fake news phenomenon should not be framed as though it is a classical strategy of political influence and manipulation, but instead as a paradoxical boomerang based on democratic principles.

Misinformation is intrinsically linked to the freedom of expression citizens enjoy on the web.  Mercier and Swiatek called for libraries to trigger a positive “curiosity crisis” among the citizenry to elevate the quality of the public debate.

On “Persoenlich,” Roger Schawinski went through the history of the concept of “Lügenpresse”, a German word that translates into “lying media” and which has been used recently by the far-right party AfD to discredit mainstream media. Schawinski highlighted the continuity of the use of the word from the Nazi era until today, noting that the very same concept was endorsed by the communist regime in Eastern Germany.

On “LaLibre,” Patrick Verniers, the president of the Belgian High Council for Media Literacy, claimed that distinguishing reliable media from non-reliable won’t be enough to solve the issue of misinformation. The truthfulness of any story is a matter of degrees, Verniers wrote, concluding that defeating misinformation will require fostering media literacy on a massive scale.

Fact checks

Several fact-checking organizations flagged a viral video news on social media allegedly portraying a Muslim riot during the Ramadan.

The video, shared by right-wing organizations across Europe that each portrayed it as if it was in their own country, actually shows a clash between football hooligans after a match that took place in Switzerland on May 19.

The Ferret verified a Labour MP’s claim that drug-related deaths in Glasgow are about 1,000 percent higher than the EU average. Fact checkers find the number to be broadly correct, highlighting a worrisome and “almost epidemic” dynamic in the Scottish city.

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