When Donald Trump’s press secretary was recently asked to comment on a rogues’ gallery of foreign leaders embracing her boss’s catchphrase of “fake news,” she essentially made the Las Vegas argument: What happens in the United States stays in the United States. “I’m not going to speak to specifics of another country when I don’t know the details,” said Sarah Sanders. “The White House is concerned about false and inaccurate information being pushed out ... to mislead the American people.”
One of the lessons of the past year, however, is that Vegas rules don’t apply to “fake news.” The phrase has escaped the confines of the American president’s Twitter feed. Bashar al-Assad and other Syrian officials have trotted out the expression to reject evidence that the government summarily executed prisoners and massacred civilians with chemical weapons. The Chinese military just launched a website for the public to report “fake news,” including “malicious posts,” about the People’s Liberation Army, while the Russian Foreign Ministry now operates a webpage where international media reports that it considers problematic are slapped with a bright-red “FAKE” stamp.
The leaders of Syria, China, and Russia were, of course, dismissing detractors and denying reported misdeeds long before Donald Trump sent his first tweet about “FAKE NEWS.” Other leaders were doing it well before them. But Trump, who popularized The Art of the Deal and “You’re fired!” and “Make America Great Again,” has brought his marketing genius to bear on this abiding impulse to stamp out criticism and discredit negative media coverage. In deploying the term so promiscuously as the leader of the world’s premier democracy, he has also licensed the rights to use it worldwide—where it has surfaced not just as a useful club to beat back the free press but as a smokescreen for an apparent effort to wipe out an entire ethnic group.