Authoritarian rulers across the globe are adopting President Donald Trump’s favorite phrase to limit free speech, with prominent leaders or state media in at least 15 countries using his “fake news” line to denounce their critics, according to a POLITICO review.
By aligning themselves with Trump’s words, despots have been able to use the U.S. president as a shield for their attacks on press freedom and human rights, said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“I’m seeing it more and more,” he said. Trump, he added, “is providing a context and framework for all sorts of authoritarian leaders—or democratic leaders and others who are dissatisfied or upset by critical media coverage—to undermine and discredit reporting.”
In February, for example, Syrian President Bashar Assad brushed off an Amnesty International report that some 13,000 people had been killed at one of his military prisons by saying, “You can forge anything these days, we are living in a fake news era.”
And in a meta-moment in July, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro complained to RT, the Russian propaganda outlet, that the world media had “spread lots of false versions, lots of lies” about his country, adding, “This is what we call ‘fake news’ today, isn’t it?”
Over the weekend, a state official in Myanmar attracted notice when he said, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,” referring to the persecuted ethnic group.
Those are hardly the only examples of Trump’s phrase being deployed internationally: In March, Chinese state media dismissed a prominent rights activist’s account of torture as “fake news.” And in May, the People’s Daily ran an op-ed with the headline, “Trump is right, fake news is the enemy, something China has known for years.”
During a July press conference in Warsaw with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Trump complained about “fake news” CNN, before turning to Duda and asking if he dealt with the same problems. Duda, who has cracked down aggressively on the press, smiled and nodded. That same day, after a mini-controversy over whether Duda’s wife snubbed Trump for a handshake, the Polish president declared on Twitter, “Contrary to some surprising reports my wife did shake hands with Mrs. and Mr. Trump @POTUS after a great visit. Let’s FIGHT FAKE NEWS.”
Last week, Libyan media jumped on a Trump tweet accusing CNN of reporting “fake news” to attempt to undermine a report by the network on modern day slavery within the country.
The Russian foreign ministry’s website drops big red “Fake news” stamps on stories it deems untrue.
Even Spain’s foreign minister said that police violence against Catalonians during their independence referendum was “fake news,” despite photos and videos to the contrary.
“These governments, they’re pushing the boundaries of what it’s possible to get away with in terms of controlling their national media,” said Steve Coll, the dean of Columbia Journalism School, “and there’s no question that this kind of speech makes it easier for them to stretch those boundaries.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed back against the idea that Trumps bears responsibility. “This story is really ridiculous,” she said in an email. “The president isn’t against free speech but we do think reporting should be accurate.”
The phrase’s spread has come against a backdrop of rising violence and persecution against journalists—at the end of 2016, the Committee to Protect Journalists counted 259 reporters jailed around the world, more than any year since it began counting in 1990. (The organization expects updated numbers for 2017 soon.)
Trump’s go-to insult has become such a touchstone that members of far-right groups or political parties in countries like the Netherlands or Germany often write “fake news” in English in their tweets, said Cas Muddle, an international affairs professor at the University of Georgia.
“I have seen it particularly in social media used by radical right leaders who have been clearly influenced by Trump’s use,” he said. “Even if they have a tweet in Dutch, there will be a hashtag #fakenews in it.”
“Ironically, you could call this the soft power of the U.S.,” he said. “The U.S. always had massive soft power — you just think about hip-hop or McDonald’s.”
Trump has claimed that he invented the term, but in reality, it predates him. In the initial 2016 election conception, “fake news” described fabricated news stories meant to deceive readers, primarily on social media. But shortly after his election, Trump began using it to refute mainstream news stories—or entire outlets—he disagreed with.
“He took this term that had been used against him and turned it into a weapon against the media itself,” Simon said. “The meaning has been so diluted and distorted that it’s just become an insult without a lot of meaning.”
As a result, Coll said, it’s obscured the concerns around actual fake news. “We’ve lost the engagement through that phrase with something that is truly new and important,” he said. “It meant originally to refer to something distinct, but it no longer does, and that’s kind of an achievement of the president’s appropriation of the term.”
In Singapore, for example, leaders are billing the anticipated “Fake news” law as a way to fight against the same scourge of disinformation that plagued the U.S. election. But given the regime’s history of restricting free speech, it’s easy to imagine it being used to squash dissent.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University who studies authoritarianism, said that, to her, the phrase does now have a clear meaning: “It’s anything that contradicts with a leader’s version of reality,” she said, pointing to the situation in Myanmar. “You can will away genocide, you can will away events that you didn’t want people to know happened.”
Ben-Ghiat recently published a New Yorker story asking why so many fascist memorials remain in Italy, and was stunned by the number of responses she received in Italian on Twitter that attacked her using the phrase “fake news,” once again, in English.
“People still see the president of the United States as a very important figure. That’s his slogan,” she said. “It’s one prong of a program that also is dismissing human rights, the whole turn against liberal democracy, the new illiberalism.”
Leaders, of course, have been seeking to stifle dissenting voices since long before Trump, but Simon said that the cudgel of “fake news” gives them an additional tool. Traditionally, he said, repressive leaders most often justify silencing reporters by citing the fight against terrorism. “I don’t think it’s going to supplant anti-terror,” he said, “but I think it will supplement it quite nicely.”
Trump’s attacks on the “fake news media” have signaled that protecting freedom of speech is not a priority for the country, essentially handing the world a permission slip, Muddle said.
“A lot of countries look to the U.S. partly for inspiration, but mostly as the policeman of the world,” said Muddle. “If you see that the policeman actually doesn’t care about freedom of speech and the free press anymore, you feel that you don’t have to care too much either.”
Coll, the Columbia dean, said that promoting freedom of speech has always been a pillar of American policy, no matter which party has been in power.
“This has been such a constant of American voicing in the world. And it’s not just about press freedom, it’s about religious freedom, it’s about democratic participation, more recently about women’s rights, about LGBT rights,” he said. “To just kind of turn around and coin a phrase that gives cover in this way—it’s one of those aspects of this time that we’re in that you really have to step back and think about to recognize what a departure it is.”