French President Emmanuel Macron’s promise to ban “fake news” is unlikely to be kill the problem and risks becoming an attack on free speech, it has been claimed.
Mr Macron’s vow to crack down on online misinformation during elections was made in a speech on Wednesday, but experts told the Press Association the “knee-jerk” reaction could have Draconian implications if enforced.
“It’s trying to take a sledgehammer to a really complex problem,” said Claire Wardle, a research fellow at Harvard and executive director of First Draft, an organisation set up to address issues around online information.
“Is he talking about fabricated websites designed to look like news? Dark adverts targeting voters? Memes which get shared by individuals?”
:: Many forms of fake news
Online propaganda can come in multiple forms, and rushing into finding solutions could make it more difficult to address in the long run, Ms Wardle said.
As an example, banning certain websites or accounts may stop their owners from creating more false material, but it is unlikely to slow the spread of false claims or imagery that have already been published.
An analysis of the Facebook page for far-right group Britain First, whose accounts have been suspended from Twitter after sharing a string of false anti-Muslim videos retweeted by President Donald Trump, shows almost 80% of posts over the last three months were pictures or videos, compared with just one in five links.
James Ball, an award-winning journalist and author of the book Post Truth: How Bullshit Conquered The World, gave the example of a false quote from Mr Trump shared in the build-up to the 2016 election.
In a widely shared meme, Mr Trump is quoted as saying he would run for president as a Republican because they are “the dumbest group of voters”, allegedly in an interview with People magazine in 1998.
“A lot of people would swear they’d seen a video clip where he said it,” said Mr Ball, but no record of the quote has been found and Mr Trump has regularly identified as a Republican throughout his public life.
:: Ineffective regulation
Mr Ball and Ms Wardle warned that regulatory action alone may not be the correct route to tackle the problem.
“‘Fake news’ is a really horrible term and regulatory conversations like this tend to be knee-jerk, so are unlikely to be effective and could well prove to be dangerous,” said Ms Wardle.
“The risk with Macron is it’s either going to be completely ineffective or absolutely Draconian,” said Mr Ball.
The risk, both said, is that premature regulation could hand even more power to governments or to the social media networks without addressing the underlying problems.
Facebook and Twitter have also come under fire in recent months for removing content and accounts from their platforms in an attempt to deal with criticism over their policies.
In September, Facebook suspended a number of Palestinian activists after Israeli officials reported them for “incitement”, but left violent pro-Israel accounts untouched.
Twitter removed a number of accounts for far-right activists in the US and UK without explanation in December, but left many abusive accounts on the political left untouched.
:: Beyond legislation
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said his personal challenge for 2018 is to “fix” the social site and how it handles hate, abuse and mis- and disinformation.
“The platforms are terrified of being regulated but also terrified of becoming a so-called ‘arbiter of truth’,” claimed Ms Wardle.
“We really do need a global body that can act as a sounding board for the platforms.”