PARIS — Can a democratic country outlaw fake news?

France is about to find out, after President Emmanuel Macron ordered a law to quash false information disseminated around electoral campaigns.

Criticism is pouring in from media advocates, tech experts – and Kremlin-backed broadcaster RT. They say the law smacks of authoritarianism, would be impossible to enforce and is sure to backfire.

Macron’s stance “could be just the beginning of actually censoring freedom of speech. We believe it is a very dangerous situation,” said Xenia Fedorova, director of RT’s newly launched French-language channel.

Yet in a world where a falsehood can reach billions instantaneously and political manipulation is increasingly sophisticated, Macron argues something must be done.

A congressional report by U.S. Democrats released Thursday detailed apparent Russian efforts to undermine politics in 19 European countries since 2016, using cyberattacks, disinformation, clandestine social media operations, financing of fringe political groups and, in extreme cases, assassination attempts. Macron’s own campaign suffered a big hacking attack last year, though the government later said it found no proof of Russian involvement.

Propaganda and disinformation aren’t new or unique to Russia. Author and historian Edward Tenner argues that fake news is as old as George Washington’s cherry tree – an enduring but untrue legend about the first U.S. president.

While democracies usually rely on defamation and libel laws to combat false publications, Macron wants more.

In a New Year’s speech to journalists, he said he’s ordering a new “legal arsenal” that would oblige news sites to reveal who owns them and where their money comes from. It could cap the money allowed for content seen as aimed at swaying an election and allow emergency legal action to block websites. The French broadcast regulator’s power would expand to allow it to suspend media seen as trying to destabilize a vote – notably those “controlled or influenced by foreign powers.”

That probably means outlets such as RT – whose coverage was seen as favoring far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in last year’s French election and which many consider a tool of the Russian government – and Sputnik, another Russian-backed outlet that drew attention for reporting a rumor during the French presidential campaign that Macron was having a gay affair.

He denied it, and beat Le Pen anyway, but never forgot.

RT’s Fedorova says they are being unfairly targeted. Speaking from RT’s French studios, she said she struggled to get permits to open in France, and her journalists are routinely barred from the Elysee Palace after Macron accused RT and Sputnik last year of being “organs” of Russian influence.

RT France’s coverage appears broadly similar to other French networks, with a slightly greater emphasis on street violence and migrants. The biggest difference: its extensive coverage of Syria, which stresses the views of the Russian and Syrian governments.

“RT stands for giving the floor, the platform to different opinions, and I personally believe that diversity of voices is absolutely necessary in order to have the big picture,” said Fedorova, who says RT will be watching Macron’s plan closely.

Media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders is also watching closely. It has decried fake news as undermining journalists who work hard to uncover wrongdoing and verify information, but the group is wary of Macron’s order.

“We are not opposed to the principle of a law against fake news. But the point is to be able to write a law without endangering the freedom to reveal things,” said the group’s chief, Christophe Deloire.

“Probably our democracies have to be defended in front of the fake news wave,” he said, but not “with the ways that despotic countries use.”

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