Journalism’s key role in history

Jean-Yves Le Drian, Paris, 4 April 2018
Thursday, April 12th, 2018


Jean-Yves Le Drian

 

The issue concerns us all – and by “us” I mean the public authorities, political leaders, the leaders of voluntary organizations, media professionals, players in the digital world, researchers, teachers and citizens themselves.  In short, everyone who knows that there are such close ties between information and democracy that neither can exist without the other, and that there can be no democratic life without a public space fuelled by the work of journalists, any more than there can be information without institutions and rules which guarantee its freedom, independence and legitimacy in the eyes of our fellow citizens.

 

To mention only the case of France, in each of the founding moments of our Republic – and very often they were also moments of crisis, of intense questioning of our democracy’s very meaning –, journalists played a leading role.  It was about clarifying the public debate, always with the same demand for reason, indissociable from the search for autonomy that characterizes modern citizenship.  For one major reason:  the precondition of autonomy is access to information, so that citizens can freely exercise their judgment.

 

In these critical times, journalists and press outlets have responded to this need to know and understand.  There would have been no Dreyfus Affair, just an innocent man condemned and forgotten by everyone, if Bernard Lazare, true to his idea of journalism, hadn’t been among the first to try to restore the truth by dismantling, point by point, the treason accusation levelled against Captain Dreyfus by the military court.

 

During the Second World War, the Occupation would have been complete darkness without the voice of Radio London and those of Maurice Schumann, René Cassin and Pierre Brossolette, who gave shape to the political project of Free France.  The French wouldn’t have had the same perception of the Algerian War without the work of Françoise Giroud and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber denouncing torture.  These examples – and there are many more – show the extent to which journalism is an instrument of freedom without which citizenship cannot be exercised in an enlightened way.

 

At a time when major upheavals are transforming the information sphere, we’re entering this new world, aware of how far previous technical revolutions – mass press distribution and the invention of radio and then television – were instruments of progress and democratization in our societies.  “Reading the newspaper is the modern man’s morning prayer,” said Hegel.  Last century’s battles for emancipation and today’s battles to increase human autonomy all echo, in their way, the truth of this phrase, written at the dawn of our modern political era.  Media revolutions have massively heightened their impact, by providing access for an ever-broader public to an increasingly vast world of information and knowledge.

 

Information in the Digital Era

 

The emergence of a global digital space is once again shaking up every sector of human activity.  It’s become a fully-fledged area for conducting international relations in every field, particularly that of soft power and public diplomacy.  The Quai d’Orsay has resolutely embraced this digital turning point.  With more than a million followers, the Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account is the second most followed institutional account in France;  it now appears in five foreign languages, with the advent of Russian a few months ago.  I also want to mention France Médias Monde, which disseminates the basics of our culture worldwide.  Today the Internet and social media have created a new way of organizing information and its circulation, whereby a player’s clout is determined by their audiences and impact.

 

In the last decade, new actors have emerged in the information sector, conquered the market and divided it into cartels.  Today we’re facing a situation of duopoly, because access to the press and information is mostly provided via Google and Facebook.  These two platforms have a market power unlike anything that any press outlet has had in past decades.  The public space is being transformed by them, as are shifts in opinion and the way opinion is formed.  So they’re becoming central to democratic life and the organization of life in society itself.

 

The revolutions of the Arab Spring showed how far social media could act as a galvanizing force.  Today we’re seeing the extent to which the free Internet access, freedom of expression and freedom of information that digital tools provide over a far greater spectrum of time and space are also being targeted by political authoritarianism.

 

In the information field, I believe the digital space has developed along three lines of tension which are now reaching their peak:  firstly, tension between the promise of openness and the new manipulations this openness enables;  secondly, tension between free access to an infinite volume of information and the reality of a fragmented digital world divided into information silos, where contradictory discussion is weakened;  and finally, tension between a decline in production and distribution costs which theoretically facilitates the emergence of new information players and the fragmentation of sources themselves, with widespread doubt about the reliability of the information distributed.

 

Manipulation of Information

 

In this new information age, democracy must answer the question it has faced since its origins, the question Socrates was already asking the Sophists:  how can we safeguard opinion against the power of fakery and those who trade in it?

 

In setting out France’s international digital strategy last December, I said the digital space bears the promise of progress;  and I strongly believe this:  it can breathe new life into our democratic values.  But it’s also a source of new risks, particularly that of digital information that is manipulated to contradict the virtues of openness and progress that we recognize in it.

 

The unprecedented nature of the situation we’re facing results from a combination of three factors:  firstly, the crises and doubts that have been gripping our democracies for a decade;  secondly, the revolution represented by the digitization of the public space, a shift which further amplifies the questions and tensions gripping our societies;  and finally, the ever-clearer assertion of power strategies ruthlessly using digital destabilization strategies exercised in the information sphere.  I also note that some statements, such as that written by Russia’s chief of defence staff in February 2013, describe “informational actions” as a possible instrument in the external intervention toolbox.

 

Our democracies have been slow to realize the gravity of this phenomenon.  And yet we’ve noticed how, in open conflicts including on the European continent, digital tools are being used to bring confrontation all the way into the information sphere.  This reality has taken on a new aspect in the digital era:  we’ve entered a new propaganda age.  The management of news about the crisis in Ukraine and the operation to annex Crimea was a major alarm call.  Awareness increased with a string of misfortunes in recent elections, including in France.  In the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Spain, the ballots were all characterized by the spread of fake news and computer attacks aimed at disturbing public order, compromising the integrity of the vote and thus sowing doubt and discord within the Western democratic system.

 

Driven by a cynical vision of the digital space, those who engage in these manoeuvres are trying to turn against our democracies their very founding principles – openness, freedom of expression and information – with a view to interference and destabilization.  Disinformation and the existence of propaganda media outlets are not a new phenomenon, of course, but they’ve acquired unprecedented significance thanks to the digital revolution and its impact on the way the public – especially our young people – are informed.

 

Fake News

 

The public debate has crystallized around the notion of fake news.  This issue worries me and concerns the orchestration of digital strategies of interference and informational destabilization, and I think this new category adds to the current confusion rather than allowing us to identify precisely the threat our democracies are facing.  The shortcoming of the notion is that it tends to encompass phenomena of a different nature, and motivations and consequences that bear no relation to one another.

 

Fake news may be fake for various reasons:  by accident, through carelessless, or through its gradual distortion as it spreads and is repeatedly relayed to the point of becoming online rumour.  It can also be intentional without being politically motivated, either because it’s a hoax or because it’s a source of income.  There’s a risk of information in the digital space giving a comparative advantage to the most sensational content, which is consequently liable to be picked up and widely shared, with the advantage this represents for advertisers.  Likes, retweets and shares pay.  And they generally pay well.

 

Fake news can also be issued for malicious purposes – this was mentioned earlier at a round table I attended – to compromise the online reputation of a person, group or business.  The rise of conspiracy theories is one of its most worrying manifestations.

But the most serious case is when fake news is part of a comprehensive strategy, an action with strategic significance aimed at destabilizing institutions themselves by targeting a population.  Here the term “fake news” is inappropriate and insufficient;  it must be replaced by the term “manipulation of information”, which I propose to define on the basis of three criteria.  Firstly, it’s an orchestrated campaign involving both state and non-state actors.  Secondly, it involves the widespread dissemination of deliberately-fabricated fake or biased news, which spreads virally because it’s automated and coordinated.  Thirdly, this strategic action has a hostile political objective:  to dominate, interfere with and destabilize the populations, institutions and states targeted, in order to influence their choices and undermine the autonomy of their decisions and the sovereignty of their institutions.

 

The complexity of these tactics has to be clearly grasped.  Campaigns of this kind combine both real and distorted information, as well as exaggerated facts and entirely made-up news stories.  They’re sometimes based on information obtained fraudulently, as was the case with the hacking of Emmanuel Macron’s campaign messages or, before that, of the Democratic Party’s servers in the United States.

 

These campaigns begin on social media with an increasingly sophisticated system of automated amplification enabling the information to spread virally.  Very often, the speed at which it spreads is also an interesting indication of the phenomenon’s orchestrated and automated nature.

 

But the most sophisticated strategies consist in creating a source of information which is reliable in nearly all cases, through the methods I highlighted, in order to render fake news credible when the time comes.  The “laundering” of this counterfeit online currency of invented news, disseminated and then relayed by authorities, legitimizes them in the public’s eyes.

 

As Defence Minister I had to handle these types of attacks – because they are attacks – when false accusations of harm to civilians were issued by Daesh [so-called ISIL], then relayed by the Syrian regime and finally reported in the press on an equal footing with the coalition’s denials.  I knew this was fake, because no French planes were flying to the place concerned and the photos used were of a Syrian air force bombardment.  But the principle of solidarity inherent in any military coalition prohibited me from issuing denials separately from my allies.  And that very solidarity was tested by this manipulation.

 

Disinformation Campaigns

 

For several years, a veritable disinformation industry – and a low-cost one, incidentally – has been organized and financed, with its troll farms and systems of bots.  There’s nothing accidental about the targeting of democratic societies during election processes.  It’s a time when the public arena is under the highest tension, political passions are being fully played out and the polarization of public opinion consequently provides the greatest room for exploitation.  This same objective leads the people organizing those campaigns to choose certain especially sensitive issues in order to increase divisions within the social fabric.

 

In recent years we’ve experienced the first wave of a new form of this manipulation of information.  The rapid progress of artificial intelligence, the sale for modest sums of increasingly high-performance software enabling people to counterfeit videos – all these and future technological innovations will give those seeking to destabilize our democratic life new ways of interfering.  They could lead disinformation across a new threshold by seeking to manipulate the perception of reality itself, still with the same objective:  to create a climate of mistrust, erode the very idea of truth and encourage the emergence of mass scepticism.

 

I know you’ve mentioned possible new methods of attack during your conference.

 

How to Combat Manipulation

 

So we must find ways of addressing this challenge.  It’s not about letting ourselves be dragged into an information war process.  But in the face of these risks and attacks, our goal should be to guarantee the resilience of the public arena by inventing a new, partnership-based, liberal model.

 

The starting-point for our reasoning must be the fact that democratic, liberal systems are ultimately more effective.  They facilitate innovation, allow consensus, and reduce the risk of authoritarian excesses with all the corruption and therefore social ineffectiveness they create;  they value merit.  When all is said and done, the instruments used by authoritarian regimes to destabilize us can only have been developed in open societies.  So we must remain confident in our strength, and particularly in our resilience, but at the same time adapt to confront those who wish to undermine the freedom of our democracies.

 

This defensive democratic model requires not only action by the public authorities but also responsibility from businesses and vigilance from civil society and the media.

 

Recent attempts to intefere in our presidential election and partner countries’ democratic procedures are a serious violation of both the people’s will and national sovereignty.  The gravity of this interference cannot be underestimated.  It requires measures by the public authorities to defend the integrity of the vote, so that it faithfully reflects the will of the majority of citizens.

 

The Culture Minister recalled this on opening this conference.  It’s the goal of the initiative taken by La République en Marche’s parliamentary group, which has presented two bills to the National Assembly, one institutional, the other ordinary, relating to the spread of false information, especially concerning election campaign periods.

 

These bills will be examined over the coming weeks, and I want to commend the work done by the Cultural Affairs Committee and the committee responsible for reviewing legislation, which have taken on these issues and are going to begin their work in the next few days.

 

The goal of this plan is to strengthen the powers of the authorities providing all the guarantees of independence of a law-based state – judges and the Higher Council for the Audiovisual Sector – as guardians of the integrity of the vote, and to increase the cost of disinformation campaigns to their initiators.  As a last resort, it will enable the regulator to suspend or definitively end, within a very short time, the spread of malicious content controlled or confirmed as being influenced by a foreign state.

 

Discussions of the same kind are underway among several of our close partners. These destabilization campaigns use all the new instruments offered by the digital revolution.  So the public authorities must also take action in the technological sphere.

(TBC)

 

Text of the closing speech at an international conference on “Civil societies, media and public authorities:  democracies facing the manipulation of information” in Paris on April 4. Jean-Yves Le Drian is Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs of France since 2017. Previously he was the Minister of Defence and Veterans Affairs from 2012 to 2017.

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