Strategic Analysis 2/2019

Combating the manipulation
of information – a French case


           Hybrid CoE
Strategic Analysis 2/2019

           Combating the manipulation
           of information – a French case

                  What if these campaigns, which seem to be increasingly integrated
                  into strategies of interference and power waged by external actors,
                  were actually able to distort the election results and therefore violate
                  the sovereignty of states? – asks Marine Guillaume, Digital Ambassador
                  Deputy at the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs and
                  Lecturer at the École Polytechnique.

                                                                                           empowered to rapidly withdraw problem-
              Fighting against information                                                 atic online content. As the objective
              manipulation – legal means                                                   of the motion was to directly tackle the
                                                                                           electoral process modalities, two motions
                                                                                           actually had to be tabled in two different
              In March 2018, Richard Ferrand, who                                          Commissions.1
              was then En Marche! Member of the
              National Assembly (now President of the
              National Assembly), and several of his                                       The need to update the legal framework
              colleagues from the same political party,
              tabled a motion entitled the ‘Law to combat
              false information’. Colloquially referred to                                 There are three reasons why the motion
              by the press and a part of the opposition                                    for the ‘Law to combat false information’
              as the ‘Anti-fake news law’, this motion                                     came about. First, the numerous infor-
              denounced the multiplication of                                              mation manipulation campaigns of recent
              ‘massive campaigns of false information                                      years, defined as a coordinated campaign
              aimed at using online communication                                          designed to diffuse false information or
              services in order to modify the normal                                       information that is consciously distorted
              course of the electoral process’. Its goal                                   with a political intention to hurt, started to
              was to overcome the weaknesses of the                                        raise concerns: Were democracies able
              existing French legal framework, notably                                     to resist and overcome these types of
              by creating new legal tools that would                                       threats in the digital era? What if these
              adapt the old legal principles framing                                       campaigns, which seem to be increas-
              the diffusion of false information (dating                                   ingly integrated into strategies of inter-
              back to Article 27 of the 29 July 1881                                       ference and power waged by external
              law on the freedom of the press) to the                                      actors, were actually able to distort the
              era of digital media, and which would be                                     election results and therefore violate

              1 ‘Commission des lois’ and ‘Commission des affaires culturelles et de l’éducation’.

2   How states use non-state actors
the sovereignty of states? These ques-         violence and disinformation, started to
              tions started to intensify in France after     be shared by a wider number of govern-
              the 2016 US presidential elections, and the    ments and actors. The strongly worded
              debate on the impact of the DNC hacking        speech delivered by Theresa May at the
              and leaks on the eventual election of          Davos Forum (January 2018) on the
              Donald Trump. They were reinforced by          subject of digital platforms encapsulated
              suspicions of Russian interference in the      this discontent: ‘These companies have some
              Brexit referendum and subsequently by          of the best brains in the world. They must
              the so-called Macron leaks episode, namely     focus their brightest and best on meeting
              the release two days before the second         these fundamental social responsibilities’.
              and final round of the French presidential     In this regard, the law banning online hate
              election of 9 gigabytes of data hacked         speech that came into force in Germany
              from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team.          at the start of 2018, which requires social
              Democracies started to realize that a          platforms to remove offensive posts within
              new existential danger, inherent in the        24 hours, was perceived as an important
              social media era, was posing a threat          step that could pave the way for a more
              that they had to tackle.                       general constraining and regulative
                                                             approach towards digital platforms, when
              Second, the Russian media RT and               information is used not as an expression
              Sputnik started to gain a larger audience      of opinions or for broadcasting news, but
              in France and to become increasingly           as a manipulative tool to harm the targeted
              visible. Their editorial line, which           society.
              involves a combination of distorted,
              biased and entirely fabricated informa-
              tion, was heavily criticized, notably by       The French case
              French President Emmanuel Macron,
              who did not hesitate to dub them ‘propa-
              ganda outlets’ in front of President Putin     The motion was the subject of many dis-
              (during the Versailles Summit of May           cussions and of an ongoing disagreement
              2017). Yet the existing regulation fram-       between the two Houses of the National
              ing media activity in France did not really    Assembly. The Senate rejected the text
              provide tools for framing broadcast online     twice. During the whole discussion pro-
              content. Put differently, the ‘CSA’ (an        cess, some amendments were made and
              independent institution that regulates the     the title of the motion changed from the
              media) had no power to limit the activity      ‘Law to combat false information’ to the
              of RT and Sputnik on the internet, which       ‘Law against the manipulation of information’.
              was all the more problematic as most of        The motion was finally approved by the
              their content is actually created for online   National Assembly on 20 November 2018.
              distribution. This incapacity to regulate      The French Prime Minister and more than
              the main ‘fuel’ of information campaigns       60 Senators then decided to submit an
              (i.e. false information online) rapidly        appeal to the Constitutional Council so
              emerged as a major shortcoming that            that the latter would examine the legality
              needed to be addressed, without limiting       of the motion. The Constitutional Council
              the freedom of speech principle.               released its decision on 20 December
              Third, growing discontent towards              2018 and stated that the motion was
              digital platforms, accused of standing         indeed legal, but expressed concerns
              by while facilitating crime, terrorism,        about some of the interpretations.

3   How states use non-state actors
It notably specified that the judge could        the sponsored information content.
               halt the diffusion of a piece of ‘information    The law requests digital platform opera-
               content’ only if the latter was evidently        tors to provide loyal, clear and transparent
               false or misleading, and if the risk of          information on the identity of those
               altering the sincerity of the vote was also      who pay for information content tied to
               evident. The motion was finally enacted          a debate of general interest, and on
               two days later, on 22 December 2018.             the total amount paid for diffusing this
                                                                content. The law likewise requests digital
               The ‘Law against the manipulation of             platform operators to be transparent in
               information’, information manipulation           the way personal data are used in order
               being defined as the ‘inexact or misleading      to promote content tied to a debate of
               allegation of a fact that could alter the        general interest.
               sincerity of an upcoming vote and that is
               spread deliberately, artificially or automat-    Third, the law creates a new legal proce-
               ically and massively to the online public        dure: the possibility to take the case
               through a communication service’, is based       to a ‘juge des référés’ to fight against
               upon five pillars.                               disinformation during the electoral
                                                                period in order to halt the diffusion of
               First, the law mentions that the opera-          an inaccurate or misleading allegation or
               tors of a digital platform have the duty         imputation of a fact (I) that can deliberately
               to cooperate to combat disinformation.           alter the sincerity of the upcoming vote (II)
               They are notably encouraged to make              in an artificial or massive way through
               efforts and to improve their actions in a        a communication service for the online
               number of domains: the transparency of           public (III). Once the case has been put
               their algorithms (I); the promotion of con-      before the judge, 48 hours are allowed
               tent created by companies, press agencies        for the pronouncement of a decision and
               and TV communication services (II); the          to take the proportionate and necessary
               fight against accounts that diffuse false        measures to halt the diffusion should
               information (III); informing users about         the content meet all the three previously
               the identity of the physical or social entity,   described criteria.
               social head office and social object of moral
               persons that pay them in exchange for the        Fourth, the law reinforces the power of
               promotion of information content tied to a       the CSA (Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovis-
               debate of general interest (IV); informing       uel, namely the independent authority of
               users about the nature, origin, and modali-      TV media and radio regulation) to fight
               ties of content diffusion (V); and promoting     against any attempted destabilization
               media literacy (VI). Digital platforms also      or disinformation campaign by a media
               have a duty to designate a legal represent-      television service controlled or influ-
               ative to be the respective point of contact      enced by a foreign state; if, during the
               on French territory.                             electoral period (defined below), the CSA
                                                                observes that a service which is under the
               Second, the operators of digital                 influence of a foreign state is deliberately
               platforms also have the duty during              diffusing false information in order to
               the electoral period (i.e. defined as three      alter the sincerity of the vote, the CSA can,
               months before the first day of the general       in order to prevent or put a stop to the
               election until the vote) to strengthen           disruption, request the suspension of the
               their transparency obligation towards            service diffusion by any procedure of

4   How states use non-state actors
electronic communication until the end          tradition. Indeed, the latter tended to
              of the voting operations.                       favour a retrospective assessment: it is
                                                              only after the vote occurs that one can
              Fifth, the law underlines the necessity         measure whether the vote has or has not
              to support and reinforce media literacy         been influenced by the diffusion of cer-
              (especially for content disseminated over       tain content. By inverting this principle,
              the internet) in schools.                       this new legal procedure contradicts the
                                                              French tradition and makes the judge’s
                                                              decisions more complex.
              The legal framework against information
              manipulation also has it challenges             The second critical argument points to
                                                              the fact that the law mentions several new
                                                              duties for digital platform operators –
              Combating information manipulation is           be they to cooperate in combating dis-
              difficult. Balancing between countering         information or to strengthen their trans-
              hostile foreign state-generated activity and    parency obligations. Yet, in both cases,
              allowing domestically generated critical        these duties are not constraining: States
              activity is a challenge. From its elaboration   can only name and shame them. From
              to its enactment, the French law has been       this perspective, this aspect of the law does
              criticized, either for being perceived as       not really confer anything new with regard
              offering too minor and non-enforceable          to what has already been accomplished in
              measures (I) or for adding ambiguous            the European Commission vis-à-vis digital
              obligations that might seriously threaten       platforms to combat disinformation (nota-
              the freedom of expression (II). These           bly with the Code of Conduct for digital
              criticisms can be classified within three       platforms put in place by the Commission).
              different arguments.                            In the worst case, naming and shaming can
                                                              play into the hands of hostile information
              In the first argument, the new legal proce-     manipulators.
              dure created by the law (with the ‘juge des
              référés’) was criticized by some observers      Lastly, the reinforcement of CSA power
              as being doomed to be inefficient because       also remains limited: it only applies to TV
              of two main difficulties. Firstly, assessing    and radio content. From this perspective,
              that certain content is inaccurate or           it does not encompass online media
              misleading requires an important margin         (i.e. media produced for social networks),
              of interpretation which is difficult to         which are precisely the type of media
              reconcile with the necessity for the            most produced and used by those who
              judge to decide rapidly and firmly              are behind information manipulation
              whether the content should be taken             campaigns.
              down. This assessment is all the more
              complex in an electoral context where,          The French law was designed to propose
              by nature, many people express opinions         a new approach to combat information
              and contradictory arguments that can            manipulation campaigns mostly by
              be perceived as erroneous or insincere.         reinforcing the power of trustworthy
              Secondly, assessing that certain content        third parties (Conseil Supérieur de
              can hurt the sincerity of the vote before       l’Audiovisuel), and by calling on platforms
              the vote has even taken place is prob-          to be more transparent. It also aimed
              lematic with regard to the French law           to uphold the freedom of speech and

5   How states use non-state actors
expression that is paramount in democ-          Ministry of Interior raising awareness of
              racies, especially in times of electoral        the European elections in the name of the
              processes, when ideas and debates are           law), to be more accountable and to work
              often polarized. The upcoming European          in a more transparent and collaborative
              elections will be a major test. Some com-       way with civil society in order to fight
              mentators are already underlining the risk      against disinformation. Finally, a strong
              of malicious actors launching information       civil society aware of the risks and
              campaigns that would purposely and not          equipped with strong critical reasoning
              precisely meet the criteria defined by the      skills can provide better protection
              law (and hence would not fall under the         against the resources and resourcefulness
              law), and using this as a tool to ‘guarantee’   of malicious external actors intent upon
              their legitimacy. Others underline the          destabilizing electoral processes with
              necessity for platforms, which have             information manipulation campaigns.
              already developed an ambiguous relation-        While useful to some extent, regulation
              ship with the law (i.e. Twitter has recently    is not the only tool to achieve these
              censored an advertisement by the                objectives.

6   How states use non-state actors
                                      Marine Guillaume is Digital Ambassador Deputy at the French
                                      Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, and a Lecturer at the
                                      École Polytechnique. She previously served for two and a half
                                      years as Policy Officer on ‘Cybersecurity and Digital Affairs’ at the
                                      Policy Planning Staff of the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs.
                                      She was also an Associate Consultant for Bain & Company (May
                                      2015–August 2016). Holding a doctorate in Political Science from
                                      Columbia University and Sciences Po Paris, she has previously
                                      worked as both a Lecturer at the School of International Public
                                      Affairs (SIPA), and as a Lecturer at Sciences Po Paris.

7   How states use non-state actors
                                Beswick, E. ‘Twitter blocks French government ad campaign using France’s own
                                fake news law’, Reuters, 3 April 2019, https://www.euronews.com/2019/04/03/

                                CAPS-IRSEM Report, Information Manipulation: a Challenge for Our
                                Democracies, August 2018, https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/informa-

                                Discours de la Conférence de presse conjointe de MM. Emmanuel Macron,
                                Président de la République, et Vladimir Poutine, Président de la Fédération de
                                Russie, sur les relations franco-russes et sur les conflits en Syrie et en Ukraine, à
                                Versailles le 29 mai 2017, http://discours.vie-publique.fr/notices/177001526.html.

                                France Diplomatie, Combating the manipulation of information,

                                Le Drian, J.-Y. (Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs), discourse for the
                                Conference ‘Sociétés civiles, médias et pouvoirs publics: les démocraties face
                                aux manipulations de l’information’,

                                Toucas, B. ‘The Macron Leaks: The Defeat of Informational Warfare’, CSIS
                                Commentary, May 30, 2017, https://www.csis.org/analysis/macron-leaks-defeat-in-

                                Untersinger, M. Le Monde, ‘Loi sur les “fake news”: les députés sur la corde raide’,
                                7 June 2018, https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2018/06/07/loi-sur-la-

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