Last Sunday French voters seemingly stemmed the tide of nationalist candidates winning major elections. I say seemingly because, as The Guardian reported: “Turnout was the lowest in more than 40 years. Almost one-third of voters chose neither Macron nor Le Pen, with 12 million abstaining and 4.2 million spoiling ballot papers.” The most disturbing statistic though, is that nearly half of voters 18 to 24 voted for Le Pen. She may have not won this time, but the future in France looks pretty fascist. For now, though, France seems to have dodged a bullet with a familiar caliber.
Late last Friday night the Macron campaign announced it had been hacked and many internal documents had been leaked to the open internet through Pastebin and later spread on /Pol/ and Twitter. The comparisons to the American election were easy and numerous but unlike the United States, France has a media blackout period. Elections are held on weekends and new reporting is severely limited. Emily Schultheis in The Atlantic explains:
Here, the pre-election ban on active campaigning, which begins at midnight the Friday night before an election, and ends only when the polls close Sunday night, is practically sacred. The pause is seen as a time when French voters can sit back, gather their information and reflect on their choice before heading to the voting booth on Sunday. It’s also the law: According to French election rules, the blackout includes not just candidate events but anything that could theoretically sway the course of the election: media commentary, interviews, and candidate postings on social media are not just illegal, but taboo.
It is up to future communication and media scholars to determine exactly how much influence the blackout had on these particular election results but there’s plenty of reason to believe it worked in Macron’s favor. He had won the first round of voting and lead in runoff election polling. Any sort of major shift in public opinion could only hurt him. France and nearly a hundred other countries have bans on opinion polling leading up to an election precisely because last-minute developments can result in equally abrupt changes in public opinion. Such changes are not guaranteed to be wrong or misguided, but they are most likely not well thought-out.
The 2017 French election may provide many lessons in the months and years to come but right now one thing seems clear: in the torrent of opinions and prescriptions that came out about Fake News not one of them (to my memory) suggested less media as the solution. In the rush to combat misinformation, too many people forgot the importance of reflection. Even the usual browbeating commentariat that takes every opportunity it can to tell readers that they are mindless social media zombies, did not seize on the election of Donald Trump as a sign that something was deeply wrong in our media diets.
What we did hear a lot about is the danger of unverified reporting or outright lies making it into algorithmically isolated newsfeeds. It was this new and disturbing trend, the assumption went, that was the main instigator of nationalist sympathies and support for Trump. What this theory left out was the simple fact that a majority of Americans still primarily get their news from television and a strong plurality get it from local TV (the specific percentages are 57% and 46%, respectively). The age ranges that were most likely to vote for Trump (45 and up) correlate with those demographics that get their news from television the most. Without getting too far into the weeds about correlation and causation we can make a simple observation that a change in television news would have had the greatest impact on the demographic that was most swayed by Trump’s message.
Facebook and Twitter are capable of fanning the flames of suspicion and rumor but traditional media gatekeepers are still the ones with gas cans. Leaks will happen, and it will be difficult to keep people from talking about it on social media but stories don’t blow up or even reach older audiences without the amplification aided by traditional journalists. Television news’ tendency to amplify fear and exaggerate risks has been widely documented and political scientists know that fear tends to make people vote more conservative. Trump’s campaign was, if anything, a testament to the success of a fear-based strategy.
On one hand, this is good news because it means the problem of fake news might be a lot easier to solve than we thought. We don’t need Facebook to invent a truth-o-meter algorithm, we need calm election reporting. Less black boxes and more blackouts. For those that are immediately thinking about Freedom of the Press concerns I can only say this: The government has done far worse to the First Amendment than bar Nate Silver from barking poll numbers.
Still though, media is a fast-changing enterprise and I would rather not have a government trying to decide if a platform is a place for talking about politics or an editorial outlet that should be shut down during a blackout. Perhaps the government need not get into the business of explicitly barring election reporting at all. What would be the best of all possible scenarios would be a shift in culture, not policy. After all, recent research from the American Press Institute has shown that trust in reporting is now largely derived from who shared it, not who wrote it. What we need now is an acknowledgement on the part of influential people that what they share matters and there is such a thing as careless or even reckless media habits. This is not the first time technological affordances have outpaced cultural norms, and it probably won’t be the last.