The New York Times, has a great story on how the term “fake news” has been increasingly used by authoritarians around the world to deflect criticism against them for their horrible policies:
“President Trump routinely invokes the phrase “fake news” as a rhetorical tool 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 Mr. 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 al-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 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 for attacking their critics and, in some cases, deliberately undermining 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.”
The words of the President of the United States matter far beyond the borders of the U.S. The U.S. has certainly been cynical and hypocritical on human rights and has a long history of supporting unsavory characters and organizations in the pursuit of its foreign policy goals but at least this was balanced with rhetorical support for the rule of law, human rights, and democracy. That rhetorical support could at least be used by dissidents in authoritarian countries to facilitate mobilization around their cause now its the authoritarian leaders themselves who draw strength from the rhetoric of the American President.
Not coincidently, the Committee to Protect Journalists has a new report documenting that for the second year in a row the number of journalists imprisoned around the world has hit a record high. The report also hits Trump for his rhetorical comfort for authoritarians and their penchant for imprisoning journalists:
“Far from isolating repressive countries for their authoritarian behavior, the United States, in particular, has cozied up to strongmen such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Chinese President Xi Jinping. At the same time, President Donald Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric, fixation on Islamic extremism, and insistence on labeling critical media “fake news” serves to reinforce the framework of accusations and legal charges that allow such leaders to preside over the jailing of journalists. Globally, nearly three-quarters of journalists are jailed on anti-state charges, many under broad and vague terror laws, while the number imprisoned on a charge of “false news,” though modest, rose to a record 21.”
At least some Republicans are pushing back on Trump’s rhetoric, but there needs to be more condemnation of the President for the aid and comfort he supplies to authoritarians everywhere.