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The French President, Emmanuel Macron, said during his new year press conference he would soon propose laws preventing false information from spreading on the web ("fausses nouvelles", more or less equivalent to "fake news").

Has there been any attempts to do this in the past ?

Other than blasphemy trials of course (religious or not).


To clarify, the hard part would seem to me to be able to decree something to be false. It is quite hard to decide. Propaganda is usually build on either a selected set of true information, or unverifiable stories (plots mostly).

Let us say I see a documentary praising the liberation of Poland from communism by Nazi Germany. They can interview a few Polish people who say they are happy about it, stay vague, even say the economy is doing great. As long as they don't say any number, or false and verifiable fact, it cannot technically be counted as false.

Similarly, let us assume someone on TV speaks about a plot from globalist alien vampires to control the world. As long as I don't have a technique to vet if someone is an alien-vampire, I cannot consider it as false.

The only cases currently covered so far seem to be defamation.

  • Different jurisdictions view libel and slander in different ways. For example courts in England & Wales tend to put the burden of proof on the person making the claim. This has in the past lead to court cases against non-UK publications happening the in the UK, because the publisher has exposure there. – origimbo Jan 5 '18 at 13:34
  • It is difficult to say regarding different medias. As they are controlled by the french government, or by a handful of people, many things you read can turned into a "story" on purpose. Just remember the fake news from first french channel regarding the tchernobyl clouds over France that was stopped at the border youtube.com/watch?v=EGYKMXWq3js – chicken burger Jan 5 '18 at 14:00
  • Also, the whole french media, from TV to newspaper, is controlled by under 10 people. i guess it is worse than some other countries you can hear in the media nowadays.... – chicken burger Jan 5 '18 at 14:04
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    Not to oultine that Macron's law preventing false information to spread to the internet is a blow to free speech and independant journalism. This is illegal and a great censorship. Especially if after his law, news outlet like Le Monde stays online continuing spreading news with only one rethoric as it has always done. – chicken burger Jan 5 '18 at 16:20
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    France already has laws making denial of the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide illegal. – Andrew Grimm Jan 5 '18 at 23:15
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Laws against promoting false statements are already fairly common around the world, including in Europe, although more often exercised a commercial or advertising context than in a political or purely journalistic one. Standards of evidence and the burden of proof on 'false statements' vary from "you can't describe your snake oil as 100% effective if every patient died" to "you can't say your device cures cancer, even if it does", but within the context of a country's legal system the idea that some statements can be found true or untrue in court is certainly not new. Indeed, it's kind of the basis of the law.

The difficulty Macron appears to be attempting to address is that modern electronic communications makes it relatively cheap and easy to capture eyeballs, while maintaining anonymity. This makes restitution or punishment via exchange of money difficult, while a Presidential system makes the barrier to voiding and rerunning an election through court action rather high. Based on this coverage, his answer is to facilitate courts in forcing the swift removal of such material. Whether you consider this censorship and a restriction of free speech, an attempt to clean the Augean stables, or trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube will rather depend on your existing ideologies.

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One of the problems such efforts face is identifying what is false and what is true.

What is now popularly labeled 'fake news', and was once called propaganda, is almost never completely false. That would be too obvious. Typically, relevant facts or context are omitted to produce a false opinion on the part of the casual reader.

For example, let's consider the North Korean situation, specifically the artillery they have on the DMZ that they would presumably unleash on Seoul. This Newsweek piece is pretty typical, in that it cites thousands of artillery cannon positioned by N Korea on the DMZ, capable of unleashing a devastation of Seoul, a highly populated city, very soon after hostilities open. Sounds like a catastrophe waiting to happen, right?

However, this well researched article authored by two Indian military experts, one formerly in command of India's artillery, point out that none of N Korea's conventional artillery has the range to hit Seoul, 40km from the DMZ. Only specialized cannon firing rocket assisted shells and MLRS launchers have that range, and N Korea has less than 1000 of them, which require rockets with a short shelf life. The impoverished N Korea would have to replace those rockets every couple of years to keep them effective.

Those rocket launchers will be able to get off one shot each, before the S Korean forces retaliate with great precision (radar will identify the launch points that aren't already known) and destroy the launch sites. It's not like the tech heavy S Korean military has been doing nothing in the face of this threat. (but the first article makes little mention of a S Korean retaliation... wouldn't generate the apprehension needed to keep you reading the story)

So, is the first story 'fake news'? Nowhere does it make absolutely false statements, it just omits relevant factors, such as range and the S Korean response. If you read it now after reading the second article, you'll find that the first one doesn't actually say that those 'thousands of artillery pieces' absolutely will hit Seoul, just that there are thousands of artillery pieces on the DMZ, and shells hitting Seoul would cause damage. It leaves you to fill in the gaps with your imagination. Clever, eh?

This same technique of selective omission and enhancement of existing fact is used in attempts to debunk global warming, and in attempts to exaggerate its effects, although identifying those omissions and enhancements is far more difficult than in this simple, obvious case.

The problem with legislating 'fake news' is identifying it. Who makes that determination? Is that group politically appointed, beholden to the political ideology of the people appointing them? In the end, such efforts amount to censorship, which has a number of drawbacks, even if it is said to be applied 'in the public good'. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

This is a case where the proposed solution may be worse than the problem.

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It would not be difficult, at all.

The problem is you are not separating reporting of and making statements of fact with statements of opinion. We're not talking about "I think your opinion is wrong" when talking about this kind of monitoring.

Macron is not targeting "I think Macron is stupid and his policies are idiotic," he's targeting "Macron eats babies and has sex with puppies, which is why he is evil." A US example would be the one about Clinton and a business being linked to a child abduction and pornography ring. While, yes, that is pretty defamatory, the claim was that this was being run in the basement of the pizza restaurant. That business's building did not have a basement level. And yet that "story" was spread very widely, and even by high-level government and campaign officials.

The first clause of the second statement is presented as fact, and can easily be demonstrated to be true or false. Or, at the very least if it's a case of "you can't prove the negative," it can be determined, quite easily, that the person making that claim has met or has not met an objective standard of evidence before offering that claim.

Obviously, there would be a lot of discussion over where the burden of proof lies (you have to have proof before making a claim vs you have to be able to disprove to sanction for a claim), and I think it would differ depending on the kind of statements being made, but the idea that facts are fungible and impossible to determine is a concept that, basically, people who find actual facts inconvenient for their agenda like to claim, but has no logical basis.

Note that my statement that it would not be difficult to create a standard is not necessarily an endorsement of the concept, just refuting the idea that the truth of facts is somehow impossible to determine.

One example of trying to enforce standards of reliability or honesty, and not just having an excuse to crush any critical or dissenting opinions is Canada's Radio Act. While not all-encompassing, it does apply certain standards:

It is against the law for any organization that is licensed as a broadcaster to broadcast false or misleading news. This was actually, originally, in Canada's criminal code and was used to prosecute a Holocaust denier, Ernst Zündel, in the early 1980s, but the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that it was too much of an infringement on free expression rights. The ruling was that these requirements were to be used as regulations, instead.

Is Fox News banned in Canada? | PunditFact - PolitiFact

(Note, the reason I referenced the above link is because it contained the passage where they describe the previous law and use against the Holocaust denier).

The previous Prime Minister in Canada wanted to get rid of these regulatory requirements, completely, in 2011 but that initiative was rejected and the regulations stand.

CRTC ditches bid to allow fake news - The Globe and Mail

  • "Macron eats babies and has sex with puppies, which is why he is evil" can already be condemned as defamation, if Macron decides to go to court. I think he already went for some fake news about a hidden offshore account (I think it is mentionned in a link to the answer). The limit seems hard to place when it comes to plots for instance. Or misquoted studies (typically, catchy vague headtitle: "X% of group Y support isis/hitler/stalin/... " while the poll is not that clear) – user5751924 Jan 5 '18 at 16:47
  • I noticed you got a -1 right away, before I finished reading. I don't know where that came from. – user5751924 Jan 5 '18 at 16:48
  • @user5751924 - I was demonstrating more that it was a statement of fact. I could very well have used "Macron has the smallest hands of any world leader" or something non-defamatory (well, Trump considers it defamatory by implication, but he's a bit insecure). The -1 probably came from someone who finds facts inconvenient and likes to argue that they can't ever be determined. Or they just disagree and don't feel I made a valid argument. – PoloHoleSet Jan 5 '18 at 16:49
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    @user5751924 An important distinction would be between attempting to collect damages (i.e monetary compensation) versus an injunction to stop making statement a court has determined to be false/unprovable. In the context of an election, particularly with a short European style campaign, the second is a lot more important than the first. – origimbo Jan 5 '18 at 16:52
  • @origimbo - I agree. This is why I'm not overly concerned about whether there is overlap with something that might be covered by a civil defamation action. Individual, personal tort vs. societal/government sanction. – PoloHoleSet Jan 5 '18 at 16:55
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How about something that is not connected to politics or personality, like the "vaccines cause autism" garbage, or - to pick something both current and as neutral as possible - the nonsense about a "blue moon" being the second full moon in a month.

Blue moons are a real, though rare (thus the expression "once in a blue moon") phenomenon caused by localized atmosphic conditions, yet every time a month happens to have two full moons, we're bombarded with the false definition of a blue moon.

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    I don't see how this answers the question. I don't really see the relevance of "blue moons" (which I thought meant the third full moon out of 4 in a season with four full moons) – James K Jan 5 '18 at 21:00
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    Is this an attempt to clarify a case where such censorship is desirable or practical? That doesn't seem to be what this question calls for, and the examples cited don't seem very good for it. Anti-vax has conspiracy theory threads, (suppressing a conspiracy theory is lunacy) and your moon story is at least 50 years too late to stop the spread of the month based version, and the season one is older than that, at some point language moves on irregardless (sigh) of origins or logic. – user9389 Jan 5 '18 at 21:21
  • @James K: See, you've already been corrupted by false information :-) It wasn't meant as an ANSWER, because AFAIK there IS no answer to the problem of false information being spread, despite the best efforts of Snopes, FactCheck.org, and others. If you, or anyone, can find better examples, or even an instance where a false-but-attractive story was stopped, I'd be glad to see it. – jamesqf Jan 5 '18 at 23:56

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