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The Enlightenment in the Digital Age: How to Manage Public Opinion by Hélène de Lauzun

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The Enlightenment in the Digital Age: How to Manage Public Opinion

French President Emmanuel Macron has explicitly commissioned a report entitled “Enlightenment in the Digital Age,” and nominated a special team to work on the subject. The title alone is already a kind of program: for the French president, digital technology should not be judged by universal notions such as critical thinking, or freedom of conscience or expression, but by the “Enlightenment.” This report is likely to surface as an ideological program against an adversarial obscurantism which—we can easily guess—will be embodied by its political opponents.

President Macron places his commissioned work under a double condemnation: that of the Capitol Hill rioters—the illuminati who believed that the results from the American election had been tampered with—and that of the anti-vaccine campaigners. A third culprit also appears later in the report: the climate skeptics. The combination makes for an easy amalgam, with an obvious ideological bias. These are the baddies of our modern times. Perhaps Emmanuel Macron should be reminded that Donald Trump, supported by the rioters, was one of the first promoters of COVID-19 vaccines. But the French president doesn’t bother with such subtle details. 

Emmanuel Macron is calling for a broad debate, but the authors of the report represent only one side. The work has been entrusted to a commission of 14 so-called experts who are distinguished by their initial commonality of views, leaving little doubt as to the direction of the conclusions they will draw. We note the predominance of sociologists and political scientists, university fields that in France are dominated by left-wing thinking. No philosophers. As for the historians, their skills overlap: one boasts of a specialization in contemporary history, and in particular, the history of the Shoah, signaling the seriousness of one dedicated to moral causes. In the report, their enemies are all designated “hatemongers” and “obscurantists.” The objective of the debate is already fixed before it even begins: “collective awakening” and “the unity of the Nation” are all polite expressions that in fact call for a dangerous uniformization of thought and information.

One fact should strike the reader of the report. It starts from the basic observation that “fake news” and conspiracy theories exist. It assumes there is a consensus on the dangerous and toxic nature of certain information—a consensus based on evidence—and therefore exempt from inquiry. It does not require refutation. Consequently, the report only partially questions the origins of the fake news phenomena. By not wanting to question its origin and causes, the authors of the report approach the problem of fake news backwards, as shown by this observation: “exposure to conspiracy theories discourages participation in democratic life through voting, and feeds prejudice.” The reasoning can (and should) legitimately be reversed to say that a democratic society that rejects pluralism and freedom of opinion may give life to conspiracy theories. The recurrent appeal of the media and the political class to a truncated or even falsified reality leads to a condition that is radically alien to democratic life. Conspiracy theories can be seen more as a consequence than a cause of a political crisis. 

Throughout the report, fake news is considered as a coherent whole. The politically correct keywords are thus gathered in the same bouquet: the rise of populism, climate-skepticism, Trumpism, the anti-vaccine movement. The assimilation among these different currents is repeated, even though the dominant journalistic thinking in France insists on the need not to make “amalgams” (for instance, between Islam and immigration; between Islam and delinquency in particular). For the report’s purposes though, conspiracy theories and calls for violence on the web are exclusively attributed to the far-right. No mention of the hatred by Islamist groups circulating on Facebook and Twitter platforms, some of which have contributed to public slayings. Although no verified murders have yet been committed in respect to climate scepticism or Trumpism, the report upbraids YouTube for providing visibility to the German and American far-right, but it lets slide the role that social network platforms may play in recruiting jihadists.

More fundamentally, the report is concerned about what it calls the “disappearance of the common systemic space,” that is, the retreat of conditions for debate where trust prevails and where the exchange of measured and argued speech is possible. But it identifies the problem without trying to find the multiple reasons for this space’s absence. Those who have eyes to see have observed how the misuse of public discourse over the past several years, accelerated during the pandemic period, contributed to the repression of this “common systemic space:” on the one hand, because of the abusive use of lies as a political weapon, compounded by successive denials on the part of public authorities; on the other hand, because of a general climate hostile to the notion of transcendental truth. This is a genuine philosophical problem, which this commissioned text unsurprisingly sidesteps. The expertise of a few sociologists will not be able to address this fundamental problem. The report ingeniously notes: “it is more profoundly the bond of trust between citizens and the media and institutions that needs to be rebuilt,” suppressing the fact that contradictory statements made by politicians during the pandemic have largely destroyed this bond. 

Apart from identifying deliberate dissemination of false information, the report analyzes the role played by algorithms in the transmission of undesirable messaging. The algorithm mechanism is based on research activities and centers of interest, which are nowadays decried because they lock the consumer or the reader into a vision that conforms to his expectations. But this mechanism is the consequence of the search for ultra-personalization of the consumer experience, which is considered the pinnacle of progress in modern society. The report, again sorely lacking in perspective and substantive thought, does not question the relevance of this very narrow expectation. “They deplore the effects of which they cherish the causes,” as Bossuet’s famous adage goes. 

On the whole, the report shows a guilty indulgence towards the social network platforms, first and foremost Facebook and YouTube. It applauds the warning and censorship work done by the two social media functionaries, particularly through the banners placed on all COVID-19 news. It praises what it calls “de-platformization,” and commends when QAnon members, white supremacists, or conspiracy theorists have been put out of business by this policy. It forgets that these fringe groups were not the only victims, and that a U.S. president was eventually sidelined. In the report, Donald Trump’s banishment only “raises questions:” a prudish phrase that doesn’t commit to much. The report praises the role of Facebook and YouTube as censors, and welcomes the initiatives of the Sleeping Giants as well, who want to control information by choosing to direct advertising revenues to only authorized, so-called “quality” sites. For France, these are the only ones that receive massive public subsidies. The system of censorship emerging calls for an active collaboration between states and private companies. 

In this report, the culprits are named—Trumpists, anti-vax, climatosceptics—but the editors don’t bother about making fine distinctions between them. They are treated as if they are all the same bunch of crooks. The report inhabits a milieu where there are authorized subjects, and those that are condemned. All the vectors of information are put on the same level: alternative sites, disinformation sites, or simply the opinion press.

Yet the will to regulate information of the rapporteurs comes up against some major obstacles, because it is extremely difficult to touch the legislative provisions that allow the freedom of the press in France. 

The report therefore claims to set up a system of social control, of internalized censorship: “Preventing and fighting the dissemination of false information requires the coordinated implementation of various means which, for the most part, are more a matter of political incentive or self-regulation by the actors than of binding legal standards,” the report says. Those mechanisms are denounced in Anne-Sophie Chazaud’s book Liberté d’inexpression that we reviewed in this column. To put it bluntly, it means conditioning the human mind. 

The extremely broad definition of the culprits generate fear of the worst excesses. The report puts forward the notion of “bad faith” of the broadcaster in the propagation of false information. Legally, this notion appears to be very complex to establish. The report acknowledges the fact that the legal basis to define what is “bad faith” is very slim. What is feared is the case of fake news “risking” public disorder or trouble—the report in fact is obsessed with the riots on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. Everything lies in the term “risking.” It leads us into a dangerous era of generalized suspicion, where the crime of an intention will be repressed in the same way as the actual crime. George Orwell would likely appreciate this observation, found on page 78: “it is not necessary to prove the existence of an already existing disturbance, but simply to demonstrate that the broadcasting concerned would be likely to create such a disturbance.”

Let us be reassured. To fight against the scourge of disinformation, the rapporteurs want to institute a “great national cause for the development of critical thinking,” in particular through national education. A sadly ironic proposal, when we know that the national educational system has been working hard for years to precisely undermine a critical spirit and prevent its development. Partial information, fragmented knowledge, ideological bias, darkening of the perspective offered by the in-depth study of humanities (literature, philosophy, history) all dominate public and private education. The young minds that emerge from this washout will be hard pressed to fight against the standardization of information that awaits them, and France is certainly not the only country to face such problems.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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