In 2016, Donald Trump managed to con his way into the White House, in large part by making the truth subjective. Today, authoritarians, dictators, and tyrannical regimes across the globe are now adopting Trump’s most dangerous political tactic. They are employing Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric to discredit and shut down any criticism or grievance against their governments.
Joel Simon, Executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists says that Trump’s influence is endangering the free press all over the world.
“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.”
Here are just a few examples of how other world leaders and governments are using “fake news” to silence dissent.
- In February, Syrian President Bashar Assad dismissed Amnesty International’s report stating that 13,000 people were murdered in one of his military prisons. He explained, “You can forge anything these days, we are living in a fake news era.”
- In July, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro whined to RT (Russia’s #1 state-run propaganda outlet) that the global media “spread lots of false versions, lots of lies” about his government, adding “This is what we call ‘fake news’ today, isn’t it?”
- This month, a state official in Myanmar proclaimed, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,” when referring to a heavily persecuted ethnic minority group.
- Russia‘s foreign ministry uses bold red “Fake news” stamps on hostile stories it wants to discredit on its website.
- Last Week, Libyan media tried to discredit a report by CNN detailing modern-day slavery taking place within their country by citing one of Trump’s “Fake news” tweets attacking the network.
- Spain‘s foreign minister claimed “fake news” against a story about police brutality against Catalonians during their independence referendum.
- In March, Chinese state media used Trump’s tactic to discredit a prominent human rights activists’ personal account detailing torture at the hands of the Chinese government calling his story “fake news.” Then in May, the People’s Daily published an op-ed titled, “Trump is right, fake news is the enemy, something China has known for years.”
- In November, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ranted about being “demonized” by “fake news,” as Trump sat next to him smiling and laughing. Duterte referred to the free press as “spies.”
The list continues to grow, as countries like Uganda, Angola, Cambodia, Somaliland, and Turkey are adopting this tactic. Singapore‘s government, known for their substantial restriction of free speech, promised to pass “Fake news” legislation in 2018.
“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.”
Of course, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders calls any notion that her boss is playing a role in this growing trend, “ridiculous.”
“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.”
According to Cas Mudde, an international affairs professor at the University of Georgia, far-right political groups in western countries like Germany or the Netherlands now include the English hashtag “Fake news” in their tweets.
“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.”
What makes this problem even more dangerous is how it’s spread.
“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.”
While Trump falsely claims to have invented the phrase, the term “Fake news” predates his campaign. It was used to describe blatantly false new stories spread on social media. However, Trump did find a way to repurpose it to fit his agenda.
“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.”
Now thanks to Trump, America’s chief export is misinformation and ignorance. If this trend continues, it could give rise to leaders much more dangerous than Trump who may be inclined to trigger the next world war. The power and consequence of information can never be exaggerated nor must it ever be underestimated especially when it’s used to attack those trying to expose people to the truth.
Featured image via Handout / Handout Getty images.
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