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.
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Like many successful branding campaigns, Trump’s is grounded in some truth: The term “fake news” emerged, in the context of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as a reference to the deliberately false stories that Russian government propagandists and assorted troublemakers around the world were spreading on Facebook and other social-media platforms to help or harm a particular candidate, sow chaos, or simply make a quick buck. The weaponization of information and large-scale manufacture of disinformation have become fixtures of contemporary politics.
The rise of social media, amid heightened political polarization, has also created media echo chambers and undermined public trust in the professional press in many parts of the world. In the United States, coverage of Trump has been much more negative than coverage of his recent predecessors, which has only deepened distrust among Trump’s supporters. It’s telling that when the communications marketing firm Edelman polled Americans on the meaning of “fake news,” they disagreed about what phenomenon it describes: Forty-seven percent of respondents said it is “sloppy or biased reporting,” while 39 percent characterized it as an “insult being over-used to discredit news stories people do not like” and roughly 15 percent labeled it either a Russian weapon to disrupt democracies or a “political dirty trick” practiced by Democrats or Republicans.
But in specifically repurposing the term “fake news,” and conflating unfavorable journalism with disinformation, Trump is arguing that journalists maliciously fabricate the sources and substance of their reporting—at least when what they report doesn’t reflect well on him. By persistently hurling the fake-news put-down at nearly all the country’s leading news organizations, he is refashioning a vital democratic institution—the independent press—as an enemy. According to his populist-nationalist narrative, it’s an enemy not just of his but also of the people and the nation. He is thus inverting the core mission of news organizations: to ferret out the truth and hold powerful people of all persuasions accountable.
Trump, who has made numerous false or misleading claims himself, has not indicated that his fake-news crusade is geared toward establishing a more fact-based discourse. Instead, his hallmark has been to relentlessly turn questions of fact into questions of motive. Coverage of the newly passed tax bill was critical not because of debate over the merits of the legislation, but because the “Fake News Media” wanted “to please their Democrat bosses”; TV news scrutinized the Trump administration’s response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico not to determine how the government handled the emergency, but because the “Fake News Networks” were trying to “take the spirit away” from U.S. soldiers and first responders. But when the motive favors Trump, the facts are immaterial. After Trump retweeted videos posted by a far-right British politician that purported to show violence by Muslims, his press secretary argued that the dubious authenticity of the clips didn’t matter. “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Sanders said. Trump was highlighting “the need for national security, the need for military spending. … There’s nothing fake about that.”
The upshot is that “fake news”—the political logic, not the synthetic variety—has become more than a talking point for the American president and his imitators. It has had and will continue to have real-world consequences, both for American democracy and beyond America’s shores. As the British minister Matt Hancock recently testified to the House of Lords, “the basis of a free democracy is to have an agreed, objective basis of fact off which to have political disagreements.” Hancock felt compelled to make one more point: “Objective reality … exists.”
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Sarah Sanders says the president is focused on battling fake news at home, but Trump has also enthusiastically recruited allies abroad, pledging to “fight the
#FakeNews” with Poland’s populist president and bonding with the emir of Kuwait over their “problems with the media.” Foreign officials have taken note of the ways Trump has wielded the powers of his office to punish unsympathetic media organizations. In February, for example, the White House barred outlets such as CNN and The New York Times from a briefing. Within hours, a government spokesman in Cambodia, where the press is heavily restricted, approvingly cited that decision in vowing to shut down any media outlets—including the U.S.-funded broadcasters Radio Free Asia and Voice of America—that disturbed the country’s stability. “Donald Trump’s ban of international media giants … sends a clear message that President Trump sees that news published by those media institutions does not reflect the real situation,” the spokesman wrote. “Freedom of expression must be located within the domain of the law and take into consideration national interests and peace.” Radio Free Asia and Voice of America have since been forced off air in Cambodia. (Beyond Cambodia, several Southeast Asian nations are considering legislation to combat fake news, raising concerns that the laws could be abused to stifle free speech.)
Trump may boast that “fake” is “one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with,” but it also aligns neatly with a charge that’s been leveled at journalists in a number of repressive countries: disseminating false news. This year, the Committee to Protect Journalists identified 21 journalists who have been jailed over false-news allegations, mainly in Egypt and Turkey. Most imprisoned journalists around the world are facing “anti-state” charges, often involving counterterrorism laws. CPJ didn’t pin any of these detentions on the U.S. president. But it didn’t exonerate him either. “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,” the organization wrote.
The fake-news crusade has also stoked cynicism about the ability to ascertain facts in a world awash in ulterior motives. “You can forge anything these days. We’re living in a fake-news era,” Syria’s dictator reminds us, in reference to the “fake news” of thousands of extrajudicial killings reported by Amnesty International, which Assad claims is simply seeking “to demonize the Syrian government.” In tweeting that “the outside world does not see the truth” from CNN International, Trump “opened a ‘big hole’” in the network’s investigation into slave auctions of African migrants in Libya, one Libyan broadcaster noted not long ago. “The possibility arises that [CNN] has published the report ... to secure an as yet hidden political objective.”
The fake-news epithet, in the most extreme case, has even abetted a possible genocide. In Burma, the government has just engaged in what UN officials describe as ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority group. Since the summer, Burmese security forces have conducted a scorched-earth campaign seemingly designed to drive the Rohingya out of the country—more than half a million have fled to Bangladesh, and many thousands have died. Burmese officials have applied the term “fake news” to a genuine problem in the country: false photos and information circulating widely on social media and inflaming the conflict. But they have also used it to deny state violence against the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel-winning democracy activist who is now Burma’s de facto civilian leader, has called “fake news photographs” the “tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation” designed to promote the “interest of the terrorists,” while the military’s “True News Information Team” has reported that terrorists embedded in refugee camps provided international diplomats and media “made up news” about “genocide and ethnic cleansing.” One security official went so far as to deny the identity and existence of Rohingya Muslims, who have long been deprived of rights by the Burmese government and considered threatening foreign occupiers (“Bengalis,” not “Rohingya”) by the country’s Buddhist majority. “There is no such thing as Rohingya,” the official told The New York Times. “It is fake news.”
The Burmese human-rights activist Maung Zarni has observed that the “dismissal and denial of well-documented accusations, allegations, and evidence is part of genocide.” But as the American philosopher and German Jewish refugee Hannah Arendt pointed out in her studies of totalitarianism and the Nazis, the blurring of lines between fact and fiction and truth and falsehood—so that nothing seems true and everything seems possible—can also be a precursor to communal violence.
“Arendt disagreed with [the author George] Orwell that everyone knows two plus two doesn’t make five,” the Arendt scholar Lyndsey Stonebridge told Vox earlier this year. “We’re not idiots. We know a lie. But the problem is when people decide they don’t have to accept this reality. Then everyone begins to inhabit their own world, and that loss of a shared reality is what produces the loneliness, and that’s what makes the chaos of post-truth and willful lies so politically and existentially traumatic.”
“Once you’re uprooted from your sense of reality as a community, that allows all sorts of other uprootings to take place,” Stonebridge continued. “We lose our human connection to other people, and that’s when the conditions are in place for tribalism and mass violence, for the extermination of ‘superfluous people,’ for ‘others.’ This [is] something Arendt understood all too well.”
Arendt put it differently. “Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change,” she wrote in the essay “Truth and Politics.” But “metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”