World News

‘fake news,’ trump’s obsession, is now a cudgel for strongmen

Posted December 12, 2017 6:47 p.m. EST

BRUSSELS — President Donald Trump routinely invokes the phrase “fake news” as a rhetorical cudgel to undermine opponents, rally his political base and try to discredit a mainstream American media that is aggressively investigating his presidency.

But he isn’t the only leader enamored with the phrase. Following Trump’s example, many of the world’s autocrats and dictators are taking a shine to it, too.

When Amnesty International released a report about prison deaths in Syria, the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, retorted that “we are living in a fake-news era.” President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, who is steadily rolling back democracy in his country, blamed the global media for “lots of false versions, lots of lies,” saying “this is what we call ‘fake news’ today.”

In Myanmar, where international observers accuse the military of conducting a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya Muslims, a security official told The New York Times that “there is no such thing as Rohingya,” adding: “It is fake news.” In Russia, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, told a CNN reporter to “stop spreading lies and fake news.” Her ministry now uses a big digital red stamp, “FAKE,” on its website to label news stories it dislikes.

Around the world, authoritarians, populists and other political leaders have seized on the phrase “fake news” — and the legitimacy conferred upon it by an American president — as a tool with which to attack their critics and, in some cases, to deliberately undermine the institutions of democracy. In countries where press freedom is restricted or under considerable threat — including Russia, China, Turkey, Libya, Poland, Hungary, Thailand, Somalia and others — political leaders have invoked “fake news” as justification for beating back media scrutiny.

Just this week, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, People’s Daily, used Trump’s words to undercut critical media coverage of an increasingly authoritarian Beijing.

“If the president of the United States claims that his nation’s leading media outlets are a stain on America,” the paper wrote, “then negative news about China and other countries should be taken with a grain of salt, since it is likely that bias and political agendas are distorting the real picture.”

Not quite a year into his presidency, Trump has shaken the global status quo, with his “America First” ethos, his disdain for global trade and multilateral treaties, and his testy relationships with many traditional allies (and seemingly warm embrace of many traditional rivals). But the president’s mantra of “fake news” stirs different concerns among many foreign politicians and analysts, who fear it erodes public confidence in democratic institutions at a time when populism and authoritarianism are returning in many regions.

“Trump doesn’t only talk about fake news, but attacks the media as fake news, and that’s an attack on the free press,” said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who focuses on human rights and the digital landscape. “As the leader of a country that traditionally defends human rights, that’s very serious, and of course it has a major impact worldwide.”

Richard Javad Heydarian, a political scientist at De La Salle University in Manila and the author of a book on President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, said that American soft power, long rooted in advocacy of democracy, was “in a state of total collapse,” allowing strongman leaders like Duterte greater leeway to ignore democratic norms.

“With Trump in power, no one is talking about human rights, only fake news, and that’s great for Duterte,” he said. “They both see themselves as populists facing a conspiracy of liberal elites. They think they are victims of fake news.” Though the term “fake news” has been around at least since the 1890s, according to Merriam-Webster, Trump is most responsible for making it a big part of the current global conversation. Now it is so common that Collins Dictionary decided to make it this year’s “word of the year,” finding in early November that the use of the term had risen by 365 percent since 2016.

Helen Newstead, Collins’ head of language content, said that “'Fake news,’ either as a statement of fact or as an accusation, has been inescapable this year, contributing to the undermining of society’s trust in news reporting.”

The problem, of course, is that fake news is a real problem, especially on social media. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia used fake news reports as part of an effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Trump. The presence of fake news in the globalized stream of media content helps blur the line with traditional, fact-based news.

How much the fake-news epithet has damaged journalism, however, is difficult to say, given the pre-existing difficulties of doing untrammeled reporting in countries where the media is already under the thumb of the state and where journalists have been murdered or imprisoned, not simply insulted or mocked. But there is little question that social media, with its huge reach and its vulnerability to bots and manipulation, has helped to amplify criticism from political leaders and undermine trust in traditional journalism.

“Trump has succeeded in building an alternative reality separate from the mainstream media’s efforts at democratic, rational politics,” said John Lloyd, a senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. “Of course journalists make mistakes, but those errors are amplified by the charge of ‘fake news,'” he said. “The mainstream media is portrayed as the tool of an arrogant, out-of-touch elite, who use that tool to keep down the marginalized.”

The fake-news narrative also complicates the work of democracy advocates in countries where democracy is already under assault. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said that “the sad irony is that Trump’s greatest harm to human rights may not be his infatuation with abusive strongmen but his undermining of the fact-based discourse that is essential for reining them in.”

He added: “In countries where the judicial system is unable or unwilling to enforce rights — most countries — the human rights movement’s main tool is to investigate and publicize official misconduct. Autocrats go to great lengths to avoid that shaming, because it tends to delegitimize them before their public and their peers.”

Some analysts say Trump’s success at creating an alternative reality and disparaging an adversarial media both copies and augments the tactics of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, noting that Putin’s propagandists “create a barrage of fake facts” on politically sensitive topics such as the conflict in Ukraine in order to sow public cynicism and uncertainty. Russia and China also create “positive” fake news on social media to inspire patriotism at home.

“People accept these versions or are confused by them, unclear as to what is correct,” said Lloyd, author of “The Power and the Story: The Global Battle for News and Information.” “Putin above all has grasped this and uses it against his enemies. The concept of ‘fake news’ is used to tar any uncomfortable fact.” Other governments have also embraced the phrase, especially to attack media outlets that Trump constantly disparages. One glaring example came in Libya, after CNN aired video showing a migrant being auctioned as a slave. Libyan leaders responded by using Trump’s attacks against CNN to try to cast doubt on the network’s report.

Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, who was put in charge of the occupied country by the Vietnamese army more than 30 years ago, shut down The Cambodia Daily and jailed journalists and recently banned the opposition party. Now he also has focused his attacks on Western media for writing about issues from corruption and repression to sex trafficking. “I would like to send a message to the president that your attack on CNN is right,” Hun Sen said in August. “American media is very bad.”

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, embroiled in a scandal in which billions of dollars disappeared from the state investment fund, repeatedly calls accusations against him “fake news,” including what he called “a well-known foreign newspaper,” presumably a reference to The Wall Street Journal, which has reported on the disappearance of the funds. Trump once called Najib his “favorite prime minister.” He also has hailed his “great relationship” with Duterte, the Philippine president, who has blamed “fake news” for coverage of his war on drug traffickers, which has killed thousands of Filipinos, many without trial.

Many media organizations are now introducing features to verify facts for readers. In France, Le Monde’s Décodex was launched in January as part of the fact-checking section of its website. In Britain, the BBC is starting a project to help secondary school pupils to identify real news and filter out fake or false information.

But it is a different matter when the president of the United States is the source, Schaake said. “There is significant damage to the credibility of the United States as the defender of human rights and democratic principles, of which press freedom is one of the pillars,” she said.