“Information manipulation” or just plain “fake news”? How France is grappling with a very modern threat
Whether it is the refugee crisis, Catalonia, or last year’s French and German elections, most European leaders have had to confront the manipulation of information that is central to the post-truth world we now inhabit.
France has been especially active on this front, from Emmanuel Macron branding RT and Sputnik “lying propaganda organs” in the very presence of Vladimir Putin to a bill aiming to repress disinformation (later rebranded as “information manipulation”) which proved so controversial and ambiguous that the Senate has blocked it. Government ministries have also stepped in: in April the foreign ministry organised a big conference which the foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian himself addressed (and this was itself a thematic follow-up to the recent French strategy on digital). Now, the foreign ministry’s policy planning, CAPS, and the in-house defence ministry think-tank, IRSEM, have jointly authored an analytical report which they informally released at the French ambassadors’ conference, and then publicly launched at a conference opened by defence minister Florence Parly.
All this would not be so bad if European societies did not provide a fertile ground, in particular due to a crisis of trust in elites, political communication, media, and experts
The report defines the problem of information manipulation as “the intentional and massive dissemination of false or biased news for hostile political purposes” (stressing that parts of this are nothing new). It focuses on manipulation that is both external interference and state-led (it does not cover domestic manipulation). The report dismisses the vague and controversial notion of “fake news” in favour of the more precise term “information manipulation”. It defines this as the newest dimension of an existing phenomenon, noting that “the unprecedented capacity of the internet and social networks to diffuse information and render it viral threatens democracies and the sovereignty of their institutions”.
The report issues no fewer than 50 recommendations for states, private businesses (including media and digital platforms), and civil society. But its seven overarching recommendations are as follows:
- Define and clearly distinguish the terminology
- Do not underestimate the threat
- See beyond the short term
- Strengthen the resilience of our societies
- Do not surrender the internet to extremists
- Do not yield to the temptation of counter-propaganda
- Do not rely on “technological solutionism” because the response to a multidimensional issue can only be a multidimensional solution
One of the most interesting parts of the report is the final, look-ahead, section, which points to four trends:
- Kinetisation: communications infrastructure will be physically targeted more often (such as cables to Crimea cut during the military phase of the annexation), especially underwater and in space
- Personalisation: at a massive scale (such as text messages sent via mobile phones to adversaries in Ukraine; targeting via social networks; false information introduced into real and legitimate campaigns such as the Panama Papers or the #MeToo campaign)
- Mainstreamisation: relying less exclusively on obvious agents such as RT and Sputnik, and more actively on less obvious ones
- Proxy-isation: targeting easier-to-penetrate areas such as Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East and north Africa, which then become proxies with a view to targeting Europe and America (including via migrant communities)
Surprisingly enough, RT and Sputnik have given considerable coverage to the release and content of the report. But other newspapers, such as Le Monde and Libération, have also covered the report, and criticised its almost exclusive focus on Russian activities.
Manipulation is not merely the dissemination of false information. Its objective is to create confusion, to delegitimise possible actions by challenging data, and to divide by complicating both diplomacy and action at a national level. But the issue is not just about fighting against manipulation and manipulators. How to fight gullibility and relativism also deserves attention, especially on foreign policy which has for too long remained an elite game. Of course, all this would not be so bad if European societies did not provide a fertile ground, in particular due to a crisis of trust in elites, political communication, media, and experts. This report recognises this, and consequently insists on increasing “resilience” as a solution.
The battle against information manipulation will continue to be a priority for the foreign policy of many European states. In its upcoming presidency of the G7 in 2019, France currently plans to emphasise journalist protection, engagement with civil society, and getting platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to cooperate with states. Both Macron and Theresa May committed to a similar type of cooperation last year with a view to developing tools with tech companies to stop online extremism.
Eventually, information manipulation could become a topic for the group of “goodwill powers”, which should support international cooperation more actively, as suggested by Le Drian in a recent interview. His German counterpart, Heiko Maas, also suggested an alliance of multilateralist powers last summer, and made exposing fake news a prerequisite for such an alliance. Maas rather pointed to disinformation coming from the other side of the Atlantic, whether on trade or on the Iran deal. But both agree that it is possible to pursue the right policy – and to establish it at the multilateral level – only if we agree on the facts rather than manipulate them in the first place.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.