Europe Against Fake News. Archived Photo.

The rise of fake news threatens democracies. However, the measures proposed by Germany and France to combat it could also represent a new risk for these societies.

With the Fake News Awards delivered by Donald Trump this week, with great brazenness, the president who has lied the most in history returned attention to an issue that has marked the political agenda of the main governments of the world in the last year: false news or fake news. 

In this way, Trump consumed the media, but the problem is real, and the influence of this epidemic of political disinformation reflects the magnitude of the matter. Disconcerting episodes such as the triumph of Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump are behind dirty smear campaigns and terror whose weight in the final decision is impossible to ignore.

The proliferation of fake news is increasingly perceived as a growing concern. Two European governments try to approach this issue with seriousness and, nevertheless, none of the proposals are seen as a true solution to this problem.

Germany took the first step. Since last April, the German government has approved a bill that requires social networks to eliminate false and hate content from their platforms or face heavy fines. The law, known as “NetzDG” (by its abbreviation in German), came into force on January 1 and since then its results have not been exempt from strong criticism from both sides of the German political spectrum.

It all began with an Islamophobic tweet from the parliamentarian of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, Beatrix von Storch, in which she branded the Arabs “barbarous hordes of Muslims willing to rape as a group.” When they denounced it, Twitter temporarily suspended her account, which the deputy described as “the end of the rule of law.” On the one hand, AfD took advantage of the situation to declare itself a victim of censorship and, on the other hand, the great criticism focused on delegating to private technology companies the power to decide which information should be published and which should not.

Along the same road is the case of France that, after the announcement of its president, Emmanuel Macron, to process a law to stop the proliferation of fake news, became the second country to use legal tactics against this phenomenon. According to the president, the bill will be applied only during the electoral periods and, among other things, will grant powers to the judges to eliminate the information, or to the user or even the web platform that uses lies to “sow the doubts about the democratic system. ” Without Parliament having approved the law, it already generates a great controversy.

The local press sees Macron’s intentions with distrust and labels them as an imminent danger to the freedom of expression that characterizes France. Hence, this “emergency legal action,” as the president described it, represents a greater threat to the democracies it claims to defend. 

According to the editorial of the newspaper Le Monde, “this kind of legislative ambition, in a field as fluid and complex as digital technologies and in a subject as crucial as press freedom, is intrinsically dangerous”.

Granting special powers to State bodies, such as a judge, centres the concern around the powers that this official would have to verify information without undermining the diversity of opinions. As confirmed to the WEEK by the Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, when he stated that “neither the government nor private companies should be able to say what is true and what is false. They do not have the legitimacy to do this, and they do not have the tools. ” So, who should weigh the responsibility to combat misinformation?

Since Facebook appeared in 2004, social networks were the ideal space to connect and approach realities in a previously unthinkable way. 

With the Arab revolts of 2011, in addition, these internet platforms were consolidated as a democratic tool that facilitated access to information, enabled free expression and generated alternative scenarios to participate. However, the political events of recent years showed that social networks also serve as the fastest and most effective vehicle for fake news, which not only contaminates public deliberation, but also sharpens differences and reduces the exercise of voting to decisions based on lies and emotionalises. Now, while defamation strategies are not a particularly new phenomenon in electoral contests.

In the examples of Merkel and Macron, the controversial and delicate elements that this topic can have are evident. 

The concern has escalated in such a way that the European Commission decided to take action on the matter and convened a commission of 40 experts to assess the problem in question. 

The High Level Group (HLG for its acronym in English), consisting of representatives of civil society, media, social media platforms, journalists and academics, should start by defining what is  false news and will build comprehensive strategies to deal with the problem and the questions it generates. 

According to Anja Bechmann, member of the committee and expert in the digital society of the Aarhus University of Denmark, at SEMANA, “This initiative is an opportunity for the European Commission to question the power of private social networks by bringing together various stakeholders, a well-balanced discussion begins on who should make decisions about it and how responsibility should be managed. “

While the relevant meetings and investigations are being held, the discussion remains open. 

The German law is in force and the intentions of Macron could be close to consolidate. The question here is not whether to attack or not, the proliferation of fake news, but how to do it. 

While any context that contributes to misinformation represents a direct threat to democracy, a hasty and mistaken handling of the situation could lead to even more dangerous scenarios.

It is not going to be that the cure is worse than the disease.


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