Synthesis of the debate organized during the 2019 Normandy World Peace Forum
Moderator: François Picard, Journalist, France 24
Speakers: Loïc Berrou, Deputy Director, France 24; Emmanuel Dupuy, President of the Institut Prospective et Sécurité en Europe; Catherine Morin-Desailly, President of the French Senate’s Culture and Education Committee

Some see social media as a new tool with which to revitalise public debate and to create a forum for citizens’ opinions. However, in the absence of any real intermediary and verification of the veracity of the comments made, social media users receive the message they want to hear. In this way, communities can be formed, based on rumours, away from the public sphere. In contrast, journalism is based on reliable sources and makes the distinction between facts and opinions.

The credibility of journalists is often called into question, particularly by those who are most accustomed to using social media, who tend to be young. In Loïc Berrou’s view, the internet accentuates confirmation bias: people are always tempted to believe information about which they are already convinced. The creators of fake news use it to disadvantage internet users, playing on people’s emotions with sensationalist headlines. As a result, fake news spreads six times more quickly than the truth.

However, some aspects of social media offer more reassuring news for journalists. The average view duration of France 24’s videos on YouTube is increasing and the average age of viewers is between 27 and 32, while some videos by Agence France Presse which reveal the truth about fake news have been watched by more people than those who initially shared the fake news. In 2017, the mainstream media came out on top in terms of public trust. However, journalists remain reasonably helpless in the face of fake news, simply because they do not have the tools to fight against such “news”, beyond the practices behind France 24’s Network of Observers.

Moreover, the subject of disinformation is now part of a broader issue with regard to influence. The war for information has become strategic for every state, as we have seen with the emergence of the concept of “soft power”, developed by Joseph Nye. Moreover, although propaganda has always been a reality, it has been transformed by multiple factors: it is now necessary to “win hearts and minds”, in United Nations-speak. However, while journalists see this development as an erosion of democracy, it has become a driver of the democratisation process for citizens in authoritarian states: in the absence of regulation, social media becomes a tool for expression and for raising awareness, given that news channels are governmentcontrolled. In Emmanuel Dupuy’s view, society is at the dawn of a new revolution, marked by the advent of artificial intelligence: with 5G, the flow of information will become immediate, constant, with no control and without any policing. Given the struggle for influence which states are waging with regard to access to information, Emmanuel Dupuy suggests regulation by an as yet non-existent organisation.

Catherine Morin-Desailly recalls that when Edward Snowden revealed that all European data was the subject of massive surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA), the whole world became aware that the internet had become a battlefield. Having quickly understood the importance of the internet and online companies, the United States has pioneered these new technologies. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, collectively known as GAFAM, have become oligopolies. As for Europe, it is no more than “a colony of the digital world”, in Catherine Morin-Desailly’s view: it depends on these companies for work and trade – and for access to information too. In this respect, the internet was built on a model which is based on a strategy of attention, attracting an increasing number of people before locking them into their own ways of thinking; their data is then reused to encourage ever-increasing consumerism, benefiting the owners of oligopolies who seek to minimise the tax they pay.

Catherine Morin-Desailly also mentions Cambridge Analytica, which subsequently demonstrated how potentially dangerous this model has become. To combat this, France has decided to give judges the possibility of decreeing whether an item of news is genuine or fake within twenty-four hours, by means of a law “which could potentially be hostile to freedom”, in Catherine Morin-Desailly’s view. She believes that there must be urgent discussions on platforms’ status and responsibilities, while focusing on the issue of the sustainability of the online business model. Europe, meanwhile, has adopted a General Data Protection Regulation but it has several blind spots which need to be addressed, particularly with regard to smart objects.

In Emmanuel Dupuy’s view, the threat now comes from the new GAFAM: the Chinese web giants of Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and Xiami, which will be responsible for the digital economy of the future. Caught between internet companies from all over the world, Europe must regain control of its digital destiny and restore consumer confidence by means of a regulated internet system which demonstrates genuine progress. For Catherine Morin-Desailly, France’s public broadcasters and education system must play their part to provide citizens with essential education on the media. Lastly, in Loïc Berrou’s view, journalists must reconcile the horizontal way in which information is now shared, via social media, and their usual and often vertical course of action, via newspapers and reports, without any real possibility of interaction.