Following a proposal by French President Emmanuel Macron for the government to be given sweeping powers to block online content deemed "fake news" during national elections, critics caution that such a move would put the country on a slippery slope towards authoritarian-style censorship that would ultimately do more harm than good.
"From the start," warned journalist Glenn Greenwald on Thursday in response to news of Macron's call, the phrase "fake news" has been used as a "rhetorical term with no definition, ensuring abuse. First, Trump appropriated it to attack journalism. Now Macron is exploiting it to obtain government control over the internet. Terms that lack definition are propaganda."
According to the Guardian's coverage of Macron's plan, which he detailed in a speech on Wednesday, news published during an election determined to be "fake" would trigger "an emergency legal action" allowing "authorities to remove that content or even block the website." In addition, the CSA, the French government's media watchdog, would be empowered to fight against "any attempt at destabilization" by television stations controlled or influenced by foreign states.
"At election time, on internet platforms," Macron said in his speech, "the rules applying to content won't be exactly the same."
However, using the U.S. media's infamous failures leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an example, Greenwald argues that allowing a government to act as the arbiter of what constitutes "fake" vs. "real" news is a recipe for disaster.
"So if the Bush admin in 2002 had the power to block "Fake News" from the internet, you're saying they'd have blocked (false) Judy Miller stories about Iraqi WMDs & Jeffrey Golbderg on the Saddam/AQ alliance?" he asks of a commenter responding to his original tweet. "Or would they have blocked (true) stories denying those things?"
If the government in 2002 had the power to ban Fake News - under whatever procedures you want to envision - do you think it'd have been more likely to censor pro-war stories, or anti-war stories?
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) January 4, 2018
Over the years, Greenwald has said much the same of the term "terrorism," which in the American political arena is used to describe the violence committed by other people and foreign governments, but never the violence perpetrated by the U.S. military or its proxies around the world.
While much has been made of so-called "fake news" in the U.S. following the 2016 presidential campaign, a study published this week revealed the false news stories, even those spread wildly on social media platforms, had "little impact" on those exposed to them and likely did little or nothing in terms of influencing the outcome of the elections.
"The reach of fake news was wide indeed, the study found," the New York Times reported, "yet also shallow."