Europe Launches a Futile Battle to Bottle Fake News

Britain has its hit team, France has proposed a new law, and the pope invokes the problem of original sin. But case by case, how do you parse the real news from the fake?

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

LONDON—The British prime minister is set to unleash a unit of tech wizards to battle and destroy fake news, the French president has simply declared that henceforth fake news will be illegal—but only during elections. Perhaps the European leader with the most workable framework for deterrence is Pope Francis. On Wednesday, he raised the possibility of eternal damnation for those who peddled the stuff.

In an annual message to mark the feast of St. Francis de ‎Sales, the patron saint of journalists, Pope Francis pinned much of the blame on journalists themselves who, he says, gorge on falsehoods “amid feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop.” (Happy St. Francis de Sales feast day to you too, Your Holiness.)

Distilling the anger heard from the Élysée Palace and Downing Street to the White House, Pope Francis said this was a matter of good vs. “the deceptive power of evil that moves from one lie to another.”

If fake news writers, instigators and disseminators are not quieted by the words of the Vatican they will have the governments of France and Britain to contend with.

It is far from clear, however, exactly how Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron plan to stem the tide of disinformation.

Over the past week, government aides in London have briefed newspapers that a National Security Communications Unit within the Cabinet Office will be tasked with tackling fake news spread online by state actors and private citizens.

They have intimated that the security services will be involved but refuse to disclose any further information about how they will grapple with one of the most pressing issues of our age. Officials in the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defense, which is also believed to be involved in the program, decline to share any further details.

Gavin Williamson, the defense secretary, was scheduled to address Parliament about the unit—and other security strategy issues—on Wednesday morning but that has been delayed.

“What a farce,” wrote Scottish National Party politician Stewart McDonald on Twitter. “Expected this morning. Gov then says not happening. BBC reports happening tonight. Speaker doesn’t know. Leader of the House says not happening. Government whips unsure. Defence Cttee Chair unsure. It’s just as well it’s not something important like security.”

Williamson is now expected to speak on Monday, but precise details about the makeup or mission of the National Security Communications Unit may not be revealed until spring, according to one government official.

A debate has been raging within the fact-checking community about the utility of automated or crowd-sourced models to challenge fake news as it is being spread. Would these systems pose more problems than they solve; is human intervention the only reliable way to identify fake news; indeed are humans trustworthy fact-checkers?

When the prime minister’s spokesman announced the existence of the unit this week, he said it would “more systematically deter our adversaries”—perhaps hinting at the use of automated systems?

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Dhruv Ghulati, CEO of Factmata, an automated fact-checking service given $50,000 of seed capital by Google, told The Daily Beast that his company had been advising a parliamentary inquiry on ways to implement an anti-fake news system.

After an off-camera briefing from No.10 to political journalists, Britain’s national newspapers ran headlines announcing the anti-fake news unit, but insiders remained skeptical about what this would mean in practice.

Will Moy, the director of Full Fact, an independent fact checking organization in Britain, said it was vital that the government stopped being so secretive about its attempts to take on fake news.

“It's not yet clear what this new unit will do or how wide its remit is,” he said in an emailed statement. “News reports refer to a new unit to tackle 'disinformation by state sponsored actors and others.' There is clearly a role for government in tackling disinformation deliberately spread by other states. That work needs strong democratic accountability and much more clarity about what the new unit is tasked and authorised to do.

“The Government Communications Service has also talked about reclaiming a fact-based public debate. That must start with government communications setting an example to others by maintaining the highest levels of trustworthiness, something they have not always done in the past.”

A Cabinet Office official told The Daily Beast that there was already an anti-fake news unit operating in the department, but the source refused to say what they were doing, how large the team was or when it was established.

In France, Macron has pledged to introduce a new law to ban fake news. He has a personal reason to get tough—his campaign to become president was dogged by online innuendo, smear campaigns and targeted fake news.

He will seek to toughen transparency rules for Facebook and YouTube, making them clearly state who had sponsored a post and limit spending on those platforms, a move that would do little to slow the organic sharing of fake news.

Under a proposed new law—which is yet to be drafted—he would also empower judges to order the deletion of fake news, but it is difficult to see how that would be implemented. During the election campaign, Macron employed a team of personal lawyers to try to shut down every online rumor and allegation made against him, but it was an interminable game of whack-a-mole which ended with great swathes of the public fully aware of the claims.

As Pope Francis laments in his proclamation against fake news, the problem is as old as the Garden of Eden. “This was the strategy employed by the ‘crafty serpent’ in the Book of Genesis, who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news, which began the tragic history of human sin,” he wrote.

With the issue so deeply entrenched—and now accelerated by the unprecedented speed and scope of modern communication—Francis may be right that we need help from above. He ended his message with a prayer:

where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety;

where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions;

where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust;

where there is hostility, let us bring respect;

where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.