FIGAROVOX / TRIBUNE – While France is going to set up a National Agency to fight against the manipulation of information, Raphaël Chauvancy explains the importance of fighting fake news by revealing the methods and intentions of their initiators rather than censoring them.
Raphaël Chauvancy is a senior officer in the Navy troops and a teacher at the School of Economic Warfare. He notably published The new faces of war (VA editions, 2020).
Fake news, an opportunity for democracies?
The creation of a national agency against the manipulation of information, already known as an anti fake news, is great news. It illustrates the awareness of new information issues by the French governing bodies, now equipped with an organization capable of understanding and leading this fight from the shadows.
Framed by a transparent ethics committee, its goal will obviously not be to define an official truth but to detect the manipulations orchestrated by foreign governments or organizations pursuing their own objectives. A modern democracy has a duty to inform its citizens when an idea spread on the web is disseminated by the troll factories of a rival power.
This agency will therefore highlight manipulations contrary to our interests, such as those carried out by the Russians in the Central African Republic and Mali, to the detriment of the security of the populations and against the action of our soldiers; like the artificial buzz created on the other side of the Atlantic to destabilize our companies and grab them market share.
The creation of this organization is also an opportunity to question ourselves more deeply about the fake news and on our ability to fight them.
Free information against fake news
The first thing to remember is that an informational attack loses its force if its methods are revealed to the public. The art of influence is based on invisibility. It only takes a spotlight on the methods and intentions of its initiator to bring down the best-built informational offensive. Like any manipulation, they expose their transmitters and relays to a critical loss of credibility and legitimacy if they are exposed. Seen through this prism, the direct threat of fake news can be cured – all the more so if a competent body with adequate resources is in charge of detecting them.
In our information society, false news spreads quickly. In return, the verification criteria are now sufficiently numerous to offer an acceptable firewall. Once the surprise effect has passed, it turns out to be vulnerable to the production of knowledge and the dissemination of objective data. Verifications, availability of sources and free information pave the way for a pedagogy of content likely to discredit biased narrative constructions and their promoters.
It is not the nature of the erroneous information relayed by networks under foreign influence which is harmful but that the fear of fake news can serve as a pretext for the criminalization of rival opinions.
Indirectly, the fake news could even be an opportunity for open democratic societies. They revitalize the public space by rehabilitating critical reason. Since the manipulations are now known, citizens are inclined to cross-reference information, to ensure the credibility of sources.
Civil society is therefore beginning to digest the evolution of information systems. States, companies, ideologies must once again be accountable to citizens whose skepticism demands proof. That they can be misled and go astray matters much less than the fact that they no longer just accept a message but increasingly demand to be convinced. Facts regain their centrality and ideas become strengths again. The substance takes precedence over the form. Argument and the creation of knowledge challenge assertion and become weapons. So, “The issue is no longer how to deceive the perception of the competitor, the stakeholders (stakeholders) or public opinion, but the ability to produce more relevant knowledge that weakens the adversary’s position”. The doubt cast by the fake news on information and public speech is perhaps the spur that dormant democracies in media consent needed to revitalize themselves.
Public and private companies
If the direct danger of fake news seems finally on the way to being mastered in developed open societies, their indirect consequences can be deleterious if we take care. No doubt our competitors have taken the measure of the main democratic weakness: its very principle. Democracy is neither a right nor a state, it is an exercise. An exercise all the more delicate because it is based on the rule of compromise between citizens aware of sharing a common destiny. It is structured around the rational reprocessing of available information. The information space is a place of meeting and debate in an open society. Democracies do not have a monopoly on truth, but they do have that of critical thinking, which is the best weapon against manipulation. “Freedom of the press is less the freedom to write everything than the freedom to read everything», Said Clemenceau.
It is therefore not the nature of the erroneous information relayed by networks under foreign influence that is harmful, but that the fear of fake news can serve as a pretext for the criminalization of competing opinions. This is how the establishment of de facto censorship in the United States was justified. It was the easiest solution and, unfortunately, the most dangerous. Instead of demonstrating the manipulations at work and engaging in a pedagogy of content, the American establishment has fallen into the trap of censorship, feeding the paranoia of the most radical of its opponents and pushing them back into a disturbing denial of reality. The closing of the accounts of a sitting US president, for whatever reasons, has widened the gap between Americans and fostered a polarization unprecedented since the Civil War. Finally, the flagrant contradiction between the official speeches of Washington, denouncing the censorship in Russia or Hong Kong, and its internal actions weakens its moral positions.
The inability of Americans to democratically and calmly overcome the fake news offensive is not anecdotal. By allowing a hitherto open society to close down, the Americans have suffered a structural strategic defeat.
The success of fake news of Russian origin on the other side of the Atlantic is not to have influenced a poorly educated part of the masses in the United States. It is to have called into question the American model of open society. The fragmentation of the public space and the system of national values has made it possible to corrupt the democratic debate from within, replacing it with a radical internal conflict mechanism. It is a step on the road to social and cultural dislocation, the atomization of national forces and the feeling of sharing a common destiny. The inability of the Americans to democratically and calmly overcome the offensive of the fake news is not anecdotal. By allowing a hitherto open society to close down, the Americans have suffered a structural strategic defeat. European nations must learn a lesson from this.
If they escape the trap of public censorship and, even worse, the private censorship exercised on new virtual discussion spaces by the digital giants, they will have the necessary assets to regain the informational ascendancy over their competitors.
An open society certainly has more flaws than an authoritarian regime. In principle, it legitimizes any dispute and accepts criticism, even at the cost of its internal cohesion. On the other hand, it demonstrates an unparalleled capacity to absorb contradictions. A true democracy even feeds on systematized criticism which allows political alternations and a relative social balance. She takes note of her odds and knows how to question herself without undermining her foundations.
On the other hand, authoritarian regimes live on the myth of their infallibility. The revelation of an error or a failure weakens them dangerously. They try to hide their own contradictions by controlling distribution channels and criminalizing ideas. They counter an immaterial threat with material means which can never be completely watertight and expose them to the ravages of free information.
Uninhibited informational attacks, based on verifiable facts and strong values, would have both an active and a deterrent effect on our adversaries.
European nations thus have a formidable lever for action on condition that they show themselves to be offensive. It is not a question of issuing fake news democratic fashion – which would be nonsense. The Americans have sometimes given in to this temptation, they have lost their credibility with public opinion and perhaps a part of their soul. On the other hand, uninhibited informational attacks, based on verifiable facts and strong values, would have both an active and dissuasive effect on our adversaries, who today enjoy virtual impunity. Exposing their inconsistencies, their weaknesses and their shortcomings with their own peoples would do them much more harm than their attempts to destabilize our societies.
The devil carries stone, they say. What if the most dubious regimes had played with fire by launching themselves into poorly controlled information wars? Let us remember that free information is the ultimate weapon of democracies.
 Christian Harbulot, Business intelligence manual, PUF, Paris, 2012, p. 14.
 This is not necessarily the case in societies in crisis, in Africa for example, where a simple narrative construction echoing hopeless frustrations can stir up crowds and disrupt perceptions.