PARIS—“Fake news.” From the lips or fingertips of Donald Trump, as red meat for red-hatted fans at his rallies or Twitter fodder when he’s fresh out of bed in the morning, the phrase has become an incantation and an incitement. Any and all reporting critical of his rule is ipso facto “fake news,” because any purveyor of such stories is “the enemy of the American people.” He threatens to have broadcast licenses revoked, he singles out individual journalists for vitriolic opprobrium.
All that makes it hard for honest reporters to do their jobs in America. They are arrested covering demonstrations, attacked for asking the “wrong questions” of the wrong public officials, harassed and sometimes beaten. But since Trump won the presidency of the United States, his “fake news” mantra has made life even more difficult—and dangerous—for reporters around the globe. It has been a gift to the world’s authoritarians and tyrants, a “trademark excuse for media repression,” as one study puts it, and the term has spread like a plague, weakening press freedom where it ought to be strong and helping to destroy it where it was struggling to survive.
The impact of this truth-killing pestilence has been documented at length in recent reports by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders, among others. Indeed, the United States of America—formerly a beacon of liberty, its democratic polity constructed on the First Amendment to the Constitution—has dropped to 45 in the new Reporters Without Borders ranking of press freedom around the world. That’s about a third of the way down a scale with Norway at the top and North Korea at the bottom. Among the countries judged to have more press freedom than the U.S.: Burkina Faso (41), South Africa (28), Costa Rica (10), and Jamaica (6).
The beat goes on, a constant tympani of Twitter tirades. On any given day—Tuesday of this week would do—Trump will tweet something like “The Fake News is going crazy making up false stories and using only unnamed sources (who don’t exist). … Truly bad people.”
This, even as Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders finds ways to dance around the obvious, sinister implications for the press. When a Voice of America reporter asked her last week about the drop in the press-freedom rankings, she told him the Trump administration is one of the most accessible in decades (which is true, in a sense, of this logorrheic presidency). “My mere presence of standing up here and taking your questions unvetted is a pretty good example of freedom of the press,” said the president’s spokeswoman, “and I think it’s pretty ridiculous to suggest otherwise.”
Outside Sanders’ bubble, as an official at Reporters Without Borders responded, “the increase in arrests, violent attacks, and online harassment of journalists at the local level” make it hard to believe anyone could make an honest appraisal of the data and not conclude press freedom in the U.S. is in decline. And outside the United States, the situation is uglier still.
In many countries, laws are being contemplated, or have gone into effect, that specifically brand “fake news” a crime. Just this week a Danish-Yemeni visitor to Malaysia who posted an intemperate YouTube video accusing police of arriving at the scene of a shooting later than the police say they did was sentenced to a week in jail on “fake news” charges. In Cambodia, a new “fake news” law under consideration would impose sentences up to 10 years in a country where the free press is rapidly being extinguished. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte loves the “fake news” refrain as a response to stories about his unabashedly murderous administration, especially when he wants to shutter independent media that report on his cronies’ alleged corruption.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists counts at least 21 journalists around the world who are in jail expressly for publishing what governments have deemed to be “fake or fictitious news.”
As CPJ’s advocacy director, Courtney Radsch, noted in a recent op-ed, you could see this trend early on as the Trump administration sided with dictators who claim to be victims of free expression. In February last year, Trump claimed the media avoided covering terrorist attacks by Islamic radicals, an assertion that was demonstrably false. The foreign ministry in Cairo quickly joined the chorus, condemning the “selectivity and partiality in some Western media circles criticized by the U.S. president.”
More recently, Radsch writes, “In December, China’s state-run People’s Daily newspaper posted tweets and a Facebook post welcoming Trump’s fake news mantra, noting that it ‘speaks to a larger truth about Western media.’”
According to Pierre Haski, president of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, a recent study showed the use of the term “fake news” by officials around the globe increased 300 percent in 2017.
“From Russia to any place in the world, any official who wants to deny something inconvenient for him will say ‘this is fake news,’ and that’s a direct reference to Trump,” says Haski. Accusations of “bias” in the media are as old as the Fourth Estate. “What is new is when the mouthpiece of the Chinese government can use the president of the United States to say how bad the Western press is.”
It is “no accident,” says Radsch at CPJ, that China, Egypt, and Turkey “have been quickest to embrace Trump’s ‘fake news’ trope.” More than half of the journalists imprisoned in 2017 are in those three countries.
Turkey is “the world’s top jailer of journalists two years in a row,” writes Radsch. Since a failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the summer of 2016, some 46,000 people have been dragged before the courts on charges that they insulted the president, the nation, or its institutions. So much for freedom of speech. “Each of the 73 journalists currently behind bars [in Turkey] is being investigated for, or charged with, anti-state crimes.” There as elsewhere, if you write about terrorism you risk being branded a terrorist.
While Erdoğan may have differences with the U.S. on many issues, suppressing the press is not one of them. He was watching from afar when Trump refused to take a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta at a Trump Tower press conference in January last year, shortly before Trump’s inauguration. (Acosta was asking for information about the activities of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen). “I’m not going to give you a question. I am not going to give you a question. You are fake news,” Trump declared. Erdoğan thought that was great, and praised the new American president for putting the reporter “in his place.”
There is, of course, a huge irony in all this, since “fake news” did so much to help Trump get elected. The role of the Russian satellite network RT and the Russian “troll farm” in St. Petersburg promulgating dubious stories, spreading complete fictions and disseminating crazed tales from the likes of InfoWars, as well as massively slanted right-wing reporting on sites like Breitbart, contributed mightily to Trump’s victory in the Electoral College. And once in office, his attachment to verifiable facts, from the size of the inaugural crowd to the science of climate change, has been tenuous at best. His White House offers “alternative facts.”
Democratic governments in Western Europe and elsewhere believe that the sort of “fake news” that helped elect Trump has to be fought. French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, railed against it in his stunning speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress last week. The entire chamber, Republicans as well as Democrats, gave him a standing ovation when he said, “To protect our democracies, we have to fight against the ever-growing virus of fake news, which exposes our people to irrational fear and imaginary risks.”
But to paraphrase the famous line about terrorism, one man’s fake news is another man’s core truth. The Washington Post cited a comment in the Fox News corner of the Twittersphere: “He’s talking about CNN obviously” while another agreed, “Exactly. CNN and NYT have to be destroyed.”
“Without reason, without truth, there is no real democracy, because democracy is about true choices and rational decisions,” Macron told Congress, his rhetoric soaring. “The corruption of information is an attempt to corrode the very spirit of our democracies.”
But it’s hard to codify a method to extract the genuine grains of truth from the flood of falsehoods without undermining freedom of expression generally. So, while Macron has proposed a law against fake news in election campaigns (having been a victim himself), he says the precise legislation most likely won’t be ready until the end of the year. And in truth (as it were) it may never see the light of day.
In the meantime, the Trumpian tirades go on, the power of the press declines, the confusion of the public grows, and the virus of “fake news” denunciations continues to spread far and wide.