Based on the observation of a loss of trust in information (a), this text explores the notion of the sincerity of information from two angles: the law of sincerity of discourse in linguistics (b), which postulates the ethical obligation to present as true only what one has sufficient reason to hold as such; and the legal obligation of sincerity of information in accounting, financial or budgetary matters (c). Surpassing the notion of the enunciator’s good faith, the sincerity of information is thus defined as an objective requirement. It describes information that is accurate, complete and free of misleading elements. If trust in information is to be restored, the sincerity of information must finally be included in texts relating to citizens’ rights to information and in charters of journalistic ethics (d). It is up to the various actors of the information market to take on this responsibility in order to revitalize our democratic debate (e). A citizen-based, non-partisan, independent and European initiative, the Fondation Descartes is a research institute dedicated to the challenges related to information and public debate in the age of the Internet and social networks.
Dysinformation and the loss of trust in information
There is a paradox in belonging to a generation marked both by multitudinous and massive disinformation and by democratic societies possessing a free, pluralistic and independent press. Disinformation, understood here in the broad sense of false or misleading information, has greatly contributed to the deterioration of trust in political and media institutions. This phenomenon is echoed year after year by monitoring centers, and is particularly present in France. How can this trust be restored?
For many of us, the mother of all information manipulations is perhaps, in terms of overall impact and collective memory, the claims made by the U.S. State Department to the U.N. on February 5, 2003, concerning the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction in Irak. As many citizens took to the streets to denounce this hoax, numerous media outlets – including the highly renown New York Times – indiscriminately relayed the US administration’s declarations (prior to a mea culpa on May 26, 2004, acknowledging a lack of rigor in the face of erroneous information). Over the last few decades, countless other instances of disinformation have gradually eroded the general public’s trust in information: misleading information coming from public authorities, wholly staged events massively relayed by television channels, such as the false reports of mass graves in Timisoara in 1989, journalistic falsification, such as the pseudo-interview of Fidel Castro by Patrick Poivre d'Arvor and Régis Faucon in December 1991, coverups orchestrated by the press, such as the Mazarine affair, revealed only as late as 1994, defamation campaigns and slanderous denunciations unduly relayed, such as the far-fetched and groundless affair concerning Dominique Baudis in 2003, electoral interference in several presidential campaigns, such as that of the US in 2016 and of France in 2017 1, etc. Disinformation existed well before the emergence of Covid-19, continuous news channels or digital platforms, even if successive technological innovations have contributed to its amplification.
Regardless of its form – misinformation emanating from public authorities, information manipulation, foreign interference, coverups of information by the press, dissemination of unfounded rumors, conspiracy theories, unfounded media hype, outrageous sensationalism – disinformation has not only undermined trust in information, political figures and the media. It has also weakened democracy and contributed to the idea of collusion among political-media elites. It has legitimized “alternative” media outlets (most often at the extremes of the political spectrum), the development of conspiracy theories and criticism of traditional media.
The development of the Internet and social networks has seemed to accelerate this information dysfunction, as shown by the exponential use of the term fake news since 2016 and the multiple forms of informational disorder that this term now encompasses: information that is fake, misleading or that has been forged or altered; exaggerations or information of a sensational nature intended to generate clicks and capture our attention; various forms of “bullshit” 2 showing an indifference towards facts and truth … Faced with the pluralistic and dysfunctional nature of fake news, we propose 3 the neologism dysinformation, based on the prefix dys-, which expresses in Greek the idea of a bad state, a malfunction or an anomaly.
We are experiencing a crisis of trust in information, marked by the scarcity of trustworthy information. Yet information, in the etymological sense of the term, structures and shapes our vision of the world. As individuals, we all simultaneously need information and most often lack the material means to verify it. As a result, we are constrained, as part of an effective delegation of trust, to depend on the reliability of the information transmitted to us and on the integrity of those who produce and disseminate it. When the latter are found to be incompetent, a generalized mistrust with profound and harmful consequences takes root. This becomes all the more problematic when it concerns information related to public discourse.
Law of sincerity in linguistic theory of discourse
In order to explain this distrust, we draw upon the fundamental laws set forth by linguists Paul Grice and Oswald Ducrot, named “conversational maxims” by the former and “laws of discourse” by the latter. Among these fundamental laws, which establish an implicit contract between transmitter and receiver, there exists a so-called convention of sincerity which is applied to descriptive statements. For Grice, this convention takes on the form of a supermaxim – “try to make your contribution one that is true” – to which are associated two submaxims:
In other words, only say that which you believe to be true and for which you possess adequate evidence. If other laws of discourse are necessary as well (such as that concerning a participant’s interest in the conversation), the law of sincerity serves as the basis of trust. Indeed, how can one trust an individual who presents as true information that they believe to be false, or for which they lack adequate evidence?
In addition to the moral requirement of not to lie (“do not say what you believe to be false”), the law of sincerity imposes an additional ethical responsibility: to not say that which you lack adequate evidence to hold as true. This requirement imposes upon the transmitter a duty of diligence: not that of determining the truth, an absolute goal that is difficult to achieve, but that of having gathered enough evidence to support their statement and to reassure the receiver that they are not speaking carelessly. The law of sincerity does not only require the absence of deceitful intentions, but also further requires a more objective rigor in the establishment of facts or of elements supporting an assertion (apart, of course, from types of discourse falling under the umbrella of satire or humor, as long as we are able to identify them as such). It requires the speaker to “potentially have to show tokens of their own belief in what they are saying”. 4
Applied to information, the law of sincerity provides a powerful conceptual framework for the analysis of information dysfunction. Indeed, despite their differences, failure to adhere to the law of sincerity appears to be a common denominator among most forms of dysinformation (with the exception of omissions or coverups, whose insincerity lies elsewhere). This is obviously true of information that is false or misleading, or that has been forged or altered. But it is also true of information that has been insufficiently verified or substantiated, of information with a disregard for facts or truth, of unfounded conspiracy theories, of gratuitously sensationalistic information whose aim is to generate more sales, views, or clicks, or more generally to attract our attention. All of these present as true something which their transmitter knows to be false or for which they lack adequate evidence to hold as such.
With regards to conspiracy theories, one could argue that a conspiracy theorist is often sincere and believes in his statements. And yet, do they possess sufficient evidence to hold such beliefs, as stated in Grice’s second submaxim? For “if sincere statements are not always true, they nevertheless are always truthful” 5. Sincere enunciators exhibit a dedication to seeking the truth and a willingness to recognize their mistakes. This is hardly the case of conspiracy theorists, who are incapable of incorporating any argument or fact that conflicts with their belief or challenges their initial theory.
It is thus a lack of sincerity, in the sense of Grice and Ducrot, that characterizes all the manifestations of the growing informational dysfunction which we now face. The collapse of trust and the rise of mistrust are evidence of this lack of sincerity. The fostering of a renewed commitment to sincerity is therefore a necessary condition for the revival of trust. However, this commitment ought to reflect an authentic dedication to sincerity, rather than a superficial instrumentalization of sincerity, as is regrettably sometimes seen in media or political marketing. 6
Legal obligation of sincerity of information in accounting, financial or budgetary matters
Given its close relationship to trust, it is not surprising that sincerity has established itself as a pivotal concept in certain fields of information.
Highly devoted to the regulation of information, the economic and financial sector has in the last century ceaselessly intensified the regulation of accounting and financial information on which capital allocation and investment decisions are ultimately based. In L’Argent, Emile Zola describes a Parisian stock exchange where participants spread false information with impunity in order to raise or lower prices. Similarly, the inter-war period in France saw an upsurge of scandals linked to revelations that companies or states had secretly paid newspapers and journalists to incite individuals to buy shares or loans. This eventually triggered demands for the regulation of the journalistic profession, ultimately carried out in 1935, with the Brachard law establishing the need for journalists to possess a professional license. No one would engage in such practices today, due to the civil and penal responsibility of actors with regards to the information they disseminate. Little by little, in public and private accounting, in the regulation of financial markets and in the public accounting and budgetary sphere, a requirement of sincerity of information has emerged.
In terms of private accounting, article L.123-14 of the French Commercial Code states that “the annual accounts shall be regular and sincere and shall ensure a fair representation of the assets, financial situation and results of the company.” If accounting regularity refers to compliance with the regulatory rules and procedures in effect, sincerity refers to the correct translation in the accounts of the events impacting the activities of the company. Sincerity is namely conveyed via the correct evaluation of book values and the reasonable assessment of risks and depreciation by management. It is a matter of good faith and judgment and contributes – even more crucially than regularity – to providing a fair and true image of the company’s situation.
For its part, the Authorité des Marchés Financiers (AMF) stipulates in Article 223-1 of its General Regulation that “information provided to the public must be accurate, precise and fairly presented.” These requirements pertain to both mandatory disclosures and to information that is voluntarily communicated. The information must be accurate, or that is, devoid of errors. It must also be precise, which corresponds to the completeness of the information and to the requirement full disclosure. Precision complements accuracy in that information that is in itself accurate could be imprecise if a relevant piece of information is omitted. Note that, though not stated as such in the AMF’s official translation, the original text employs the word “sincère” (i.e., sincere) to convey the notion of information that is “fairly presented.” This requirement of “fair presentation,” or sincerity, implies that both the positive and negative elements of the information in question are communicated. It further implies that the information communicated reflects the level of knowledge available within the company. The jurisprudence of the AMF specifies that equivocal or ambiguous information does not meet the standards of precision and sincerity required by article 223-1. Moreover, a manager can be held accountable for publicly disclosing information that does not meet the accuracy, precision, and sincerity requirements, not only if he knew that the information disclosed does not reflect reality, but also if he should have known.
Requirements for information do not only concern transmitters of information, but also all market participants. Recital 47 of the EU directive of 16th, April 2014 specifies that the dissemination of false or misleading information by market participants can constitute a manipulation or attempted manipulation of financial instruments. This can include the fabrication of patently false information, the deliberate omission of data or the reporting of information that one knows to be inaccurate. This includes rumors or false or misleading news. In particular, market participants are not authorized to freely communicate information contrary to their own opinion or to their common sense, if they are or should be aware of the erroneous or misleading nature of this information.
The sincerity requirement has also been spelled out in the context of both public accounting and budgetary forecasting.
In the area of public finance, sincerity has become a cornerstone of the requirements for the accounts and budget forecasts of public administrations (including local authorities and social security). Based on the provisions related to private accounting, it is enshrined in article 27 of the Constitutional bylaw of 1st, August 2001 on budget acts (LOLF): “the State’s accounts must be lawful, faithful and give a true and fair view of its net assets and financial situation.” Note that here again, the official translation has replaced the word “sincère” (i.e., sincere) with “faithful”. The Constitutional Council further specified that faithfulness, or sincerity, in accounting is also understood as requiring the accuracy of the accounts.
Sincerity has also been recently canonized in the budgetary sphere. Serving as the opening line of Title III of the LOLF, article 32 stipulates that “the budget acts give a faithful representation of all the State’s resources and charges. Their sincerity can be assessed based on the information available and projections that may reasonably result from this information.” The Constitutional Council further highlights the distinction between sincerity in terms of budgetary forecasting and in terms of budgetary execution (the rendering of accounts). With regards to budgetary forecasting, which is characterized by inherent uncertainty, the notion of sincerity is understood subjectively as the absence of any intention to distort the guiding principles of the balance established by the laws of finance. However, as concerns budgetary execution, the notion of sincerity is understood as requiring the accuracy of accounts, and the statements made in this regard must therefore be truthful. Here, the sincerity of information therefore combines accuracy and good faith, both of which are necessary to communicate a faithful representation of reality.
The accuracy of a piece of information can be equated with factual truth, which is to say that it is often empirically verifiable. Completeness ensures that the information, in addition to being accurate, is whole and does not subtract any elements necessary for a proper appreciation of the facts, and does not present a partial version of the subject that might distort its understanding. Although they can be the subject of many discussions, the concepts of accuracy and completeness refer to a verifiable and objective reality. On the other hand, the notion of sincerity presupposes at the very least the absence of deceitful intentions. Insincerity does not merely refer to a lie, to a voluntarily erroneous assertion, but encompasses all forms of deceitful intent, such as the omission or concealment of certain aspects necessary for the understanding of a subject. Whether private or public, the sincerity of financial information is therefore an objective requirement related to the information itself, which must be complete, accurate and free of misleading elements in order to give a faithful representation of the situation.
As a fundamental principle of the financial and accounting sectors, the Constitutional Council on July 13, 2006, raised the sincerity of budget laws to the level of an imperative with constitutional value, drawing legitimacy from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789. The constitutional principle of sincerity puts the government at risk of having its budget censored. However, it must be noted that the Constitutional Council has never sanctioned a budget law on the basis of this principle, limiting itself to looking for an obvious error of evaluation, an important indicator that would lead one to think that the government has voluntarily lied.
Necessity of fostering the principle of sincerity in fields related to information.
While the law of sincerity has been defined by linguists as a fundamental law of discourse, and the imperative of sincerity is becoming increasingly entrenched in all matters related to accounting, financial and budgetary information, the requirement of sincerity of information is notably absent from both the main charters of journalistic ethics and the principles relating to information identified by the Constitutional Council.
The imperative of sincerity of information is, however, an epistemological requirement of diverse truth-producing institutions, such as the judicial system or scientific research 7. It fuels, among other things, the ethical or deontological reflection of professions and industries marked by a certain asymmetry of information (ethics of the doctor, the lawyer, or the pharmaceutical industry, for instance).
With regards to charters of journalistic ethics, and despite the multitude of principles to which they refer (truthfulness, accuracy, integrity, fairness, impartiality, completeness, honesty), neither the Chartre d’éthique professionnelle des journalistes (Charter of Professional Ethics of Journalists) of 1918, revised in 1938 and 2011, nor the Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Journalists, known as the “Charter of Munich” of 1971, nor the Global Charter of Ethics for Journalists of the International Federation of Journalists, adopted in 2019 in Tunis, explicitly mention the requirement of sincerity of information. The notion seems to only appear in 1946, in the words of Emile Brémond, director of the newspaper Le Progrès of Lyon, who called for the creation of a Board of Ethics to “examine all cases of offense to the truth and of infringement upon the sincerity of information” 8.
The term honesty, which is closely related but not synonymous, seems to be preferred in charters of journalistic ethics. Honesty is mentioned in the Charter of Tunis of 2019 and in the International Principles of Professional Ethics in Journalism of UNESCO (1983), which points to an honest commitment to objective reality. The Observatoire de la déontologie de l’information (Observatory of Information Ethics), promoter of the new Council for Ethical Journalism and Mediation (CDJM), also refers to this notion when discussing information that is free, honest and pluralistic.
The same is true of the Constitutional Council, which in its decision of September 18, 1986 regarding the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, established in parallel with a principle of pluralism, an imperative of honesty of information 9. Thus, pluralism and honesty appear linked, and the Council considers both to be inescapable imperatives. While the Council expressed itself on laws relating to the audiovisual realm, we can undoubtedly consider that the constitutional imperative of honesty of information is also applicable to the written press. Nevertheless, the notion of honesty of information has never been precisely defined by the Constitutional Council.
However, from our point of view, the notion of sincerity, understood as a law of discourse consisting of saying only what one believes to be true or has adequate evidence to hold as such, appears to be particularly relevant to the field of news and media information. Where dishonesty consists only of presenting as true a piece of information that we believe to be false, insincerity more broadly includes cases where we present as true a piece of information that we do not have adequate evidence to hold as such. The notion of sincerity therefore encompasses the careless dissemination of information, the peddling of rumors or of unfounded gossip or the simple reporting of unverified facts and events. Far from referring only to the misleading, deceptive or biased nature of information, the notion of sincerity of information also encompasses the responsibility and seriousness required of those who disseminate information to the public within the framework of a delegation of trust. It requires not only good faith on behalf of the transmitter, but also the rigor and accuracy necessary to faithfully represent the facts or events being reported. Moreover, it is a universal requirement that applies to all those who engage in disseminating information, whether in a professional capacity or otherwise. It is a greater requirement than that of honesty, since it includes an additional responsibility beyond good faith: that of exercising diligence in establishing the truthfulness of a piece of information. We define it as information that is accurate, complete and devoid of any misleading elements.
As a necessary condition for the renewal of trust, the principle of sincerity of information therefore seems to rightfully deserve a place in charters of journalistic ethics, as well as in the definition of the notion of honesty of information that the Constitutional Council will undoubtedly formulate in due course.
Responsibility of every stakeholder in the cognitive information market
Defined as an accurate and complete depiction of the facts, devoid of any intention to distort their understanding, the requirement of sincerity of information therefore deserves to be promoted as such by all of the stakeholders of the cognitive information market – i.e. the market of facts and events that are of interest to the public and that contribute to shaping their opinion. Indeed, it seems to us that this notion responds to a strong aspiration of the general public, and that it can massively contribute to the renewal of trust in information.
Every stakeholder in the cognitive information market must contribute to this effort by raising their standards for the sincerity of information.
First, the requirement of sincerity must be incorporated by communicators – i.e., by all those who are tasked with communicating information to the general public: administrations, governments, businesses and any individual or group that disseminates information to the public. The dividing line between information and communication must be reassessed in light of an increased requirement for the sincerity of information. While it is legitimate to clarify or emphasize certain facts, the fabrication of language elements used in public and private communication too often resembles a distortion or dilution of the facts that far exceeds their mere favorable presentation. In the loss of trust in information, there exists a deep weariness in the face of the perceived insincerity of communication, sometimes seen as the “little death of information” 10. This insincerity, even when it manifests itself by omission and is not explicitly deceitful, nevertheless falls short of the public’s expectations 11.
Second, digital platforms, whose role in providing access to information is growing each day, must ensure that they preferentially disseminate sincere information stemming from information sources known for producing information that adheres to robust deontological guidelines. This responsible information could be distinguished from the expression of opinions, views or emotions that are of a different nature than information itself. Concrete initiatives, such as the Journalism Trust Initiative promoted by Reporters Without Borders 12">https://rsf.org/en/presentation-2)), could allow platforms to distinguish in an objective and independent way the relative quality of information production processes, without conferring onto them the responsibility of censoring content, which would pose a threat to democracy. For if the aim of the Fondation Descartes is to promote a greater sincerity of information, this in no way concerns comments or opinions which, besides certain exceptions sanctioned by law, must remain free and protected by the fundamental principles of freedom of thought and expression.
Third, it seems to us that the notion of sincerity of information ought to be featured explicitly in the main charters of journalistic ethics 13, alongside the notions of objectivity, integrity and honesty. It could also be adopted by the recently formed Council for Ethical Journalism and Mediation (CDJM) and would complement the notion of constitutional value of honesty, recognized as such by the Constitutional Council 14, but which has yet to be explicitly defined and which we do not believe to be identical to the notion of sincerity. At a time when, due to the progressive erosion of their means, numerous media outlets have been reduced to the direct diffusion of information from press agencies and of – at times deferential and complacent – press releases prepared by public relations consultants, the notion of sincerity must be used to reinforce the standards of diffusion of information and the requirements imposed on transmitters of information. The requirement of sincerity of information can also be the necessary counterweight to the ever-increasing pressure of sensationalism. It is a powerful idea for achieving the goal of “responsible” information – i.e., information that is “faithful to the facts and precise in its elaboration” (Jean-Luc Martin Lagardette, L’Information Responsable, 19)). It is also a prerequisite to the renewal of public trust: “[For] the public to be willing to believe, it is necessary that in parallel to the appreciation of the professional reliability of journalists, an assumption of sincerity asserts itself” 15. Lastly, the onus is on civil society to monitor with greater vigilance and rigor the information that is produced, disseminated, and consumed each day by citizens. It is up to all of us to adopt this notion of sincerity by ensuring that information that is disseminated, especially on the Internet, is both accurate and in good faith. In parallel, it is our responsibility to question our credulity, to sharpen our critical thinking, to avoid the confusion between facts, opinions and emotions and to not participate in the sharing of information that is potentially inaccurate, incomplete or misleading. Today, as technology has enabled everybody to produce and massively disseminate content that presents itself as journalistic, and to therefore become a producer of information for the public, each and every one of us must be aware of the harm that results from the failure to respect the norms of sincere information. As UNESCO has stated 16), there exists a right of the people to truthful and authentic information. The onus is therefore on civil society to consider information as a critical issue of the coming decades and to promote this requirement of sincerity of information.
Raison d’être of the Fondation Descartes
A collective awareness is therefore necessary. To break the vicious cycle of distrust in information, we need to undertake a profound general effort in order to renew our collective practices. Communicators, digital platforms, media outlets and citizens all have a part to play in this project. They must embrace the increased requirement of accuracy and completeness, as well as the absence of any intention to distort their understanding, which we call the sincerity of information. No blatantly insincere information should be allowed to be produced and disseminated with impunity. All information that we receive should in turn prompt us to question our critical thinking, our reasoning and our credulity and thus contribute to the internalization of a methodical doubt relative to information 17.
Launched in September 2019, the project of the Fondation Descartes for Information (https://www.fondationdescartes.org/en/home/) aims to fight against all forms of informational disorder harmful to the public debate through the promotion of the principle of the sincerity of information and that of methodical doubt in the face of information. In the era of fake news and of the informational disorder engendered by the upheaval of the modes of production, diffusion and consumption of information, a widespread mobilization is indeed necessary to curb the growing dysfunctions within the information ecosystem. Faced with the proliferation of what we call dysinformation, the cognitive market of facts communicated to the public must be cleaned up in order to revitalize the democratic debate.
As a non-partisan, independent, citizen-based and European initiative, the Fondation Descartes brings together citizens from diverse backgrounds who share the conviction that sincere information is a collective enterprise that is essential to the democratic debate. Its members include journalists, academics, specialists of information and members of civil society. It is open to all approaches and fields of expertise seeking to work for the common good.
Through its governing bodies (Executive Board and Scientific Council), its permanent team and its associated circle of experts, the Fondation Descartes aims to provide a European voice on information-related issues. The means of action implemented to achieve the objectives of the Fondation will include:
With regards to research, the priorities of the Fondation Descartes are to further pursue reflections on the following subjects:
In terms of diagnosis:
In terms of solutions:
Regaining a collective trust in information requires the commitment of all. While the in-depth analysis of various forms of information dysfunction is a prerequisite for action, the promotion of the requirement of sincerity of information, coupled with that of methodical doubt and of critical thinking, can significantly contribute to this aim. This is an essential task to which all must contribute, so that our children may live the in a democracy based on trust.
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