Pope Francis recently entered the global fray on fake news in a major church document, tracing the deliberate spread of false information to the evil serpent in the Book of Genesis who inspired humankind’s original sin in the Garden of Eden.
"This biblical episode brings to light an essential element for our reflection: there is no such thing as harmless disinformation," he wrote Wednesday. "On the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects."
The pope’s message did not target political leaders who have used the phrase to demean journalism they do not like or consider inaccurate. But the message resonated in the United States where, a week earlier, President Donald Trump revealed the news organizations who received his "fake news awards."
The awards led Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to blast Trump’s anti-press rhetoric from the Senate floor, saying his attacks serve to embolden repressive governments around the world.
"Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press," Flake said, "but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible."
With the pope calling on reporters to promote a truthful "journalism of peace," we wanted to examine Flake’s point about the authoritarian use of fake news as a weapon against media accountability.
Based on our review of the evidence, it’s reasonable to conclude that Trump’s disparagement of the media has been replicated abroad.
Invoking ‘fake news’ to deny atrocities, abuses
An aide to Flake said the senator had referred to a Politico article that identified more than 15 instances where foreign leaders invoked the phrase "fake news." Here’s a sample:
• Syrian President Bashar Assad in February invoked "fake news" to dismiss an Amnesty International report that up to 13,000 prisoners had been executed in one of his military prisons, saying the allegations were a reminder that "we are living in a fake news era."
• A security official in Buddhist-majority Myanmar in December used the term "fake news" to deny the very existence of the Rohingya people, a persecuted Muslim minority who are being ethnically cleansed, according to the United Nations. "There is no such thing as Rohingya," the Myanmar official said. "It is fake news."
• Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in July said it was "fake news" that a constitutional crisis was playing out in Venezuela against a backdrop of widespread protests, human rights abuses and long-standing economic privation. "The media spreads lots of false versions, lots of lies. This is what we call ‘fake news’ today, isn’t it?" he told Russian broadcaster RT, which the U.S. government considers a Kremlin propaganda outlet.
• An op-ed with the headline "Trump is right, fake news is the enemy, something China has known for years" ran in May in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party in China, which is perennially a leading jailer of journalists.
• Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in October said he had been "demonized" through "fake news" coverage of his brutal drug war, which has seen an unprecedented scale of extrajudicial killings, according to Human Rights Watch. At a joint press appearance in Manila in November, with Trump laughing at his side, Duterte called journalists "spies."
Trump’s rebranding of ‘fake news’
There’s reason to think Trump inspired these responses. He has helped to popularize the phrase "fake news," while shifting its meaning.
According to CNN, Trump has used the word "fake" more than 400 times since his inauguration, including "fake news" and its variants. Overall, use of the phrase "fake news" across all forms of media increased 365 percent from November 2016 to November 2017, according to the Collins Dictionary, which named "fake news" its 2017 word of the year.
At PolitiFact, we have used the term "fake news" to refer to fabricated content masquerading as a portrayal of actual events, naming it our 2016 Lie of the Year after made-up stories dominated social media during the presidential election.
Trump, however, uses "fake news" to dismiss coverage that is unsympathetic to him and his administration, or as a criticism against entire news organizations. He’s also taken credit for rebranding the term "fake news" to apply to fact-based journalism, calling it "one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with."
The epithet’s authoritarian appeal
Experts said it’s easy to see why Trump’s use of the term "fake news" appeals to authoritarian leaders. Authoritarian governments are typified by highly centralized power and the predominance of the state over individual rights.
"Every authoritarian needs to spread his own version of reality, and will invest time and resources to discredit anyone else’s," said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University. "Many of them are corrupt, and if an investigation threatens to compromise their authority, or charges of wrongdoing come down, they need the public to believe only what they say."
Ben-Ghiat said Trump’s consistent efforts to attack the press as purveyors of bias and lies against him, and incite hostility toward individual news outlets and journalists, can be seen as part of a larger campaign against sectors of society that value evidence and investigation.
"When Trump says ‘I am the only one who matters’ it is not just self-glorification, but a message about whose version of the facts should count in America," she said. "How can foreign rulers not feel empowered by this?"
A First Amendment advocate we spoke to drew parallels between Trump’s use of the term "fake news" and George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, in which an authoritarian state inverts language to mean the opposite of its literal definition.
"It is a characteristic of authoritarian leaders, whether Communist or Nazi, to appropriate ordinary words and declare them to mean the opposite," Bruce Johnson, a Seattle-based media lawyer, told PolitiFact. "Repressive regimes hold power by depriving their population of independent thinking and making the masses believe lies."
It’s worth noting we found no mentions of "fake news" from foreign leaders before 2016.
Increased risk to journalists
The rise of the "fake news" epithet coincided with one of the most dangerous years for journalists.
Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists found 262 journalists were jailed for their work, a historic high for the second year in a row. In 21 cases, journalists were jailed under "false news" statutes, more than double the number in 2016, and in more countries, said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at Committee to Protect Journalists.
"It’s created an environment where it’s more permissive for governments to jail journalists on false news charges," she said. "They certainly don’t think they’re going to face many repercussions or condemnation from the United States when you have the president making those comments on a regular basis."
Human rights activists say the growing disregard for facts has been making their job harder, too.
"Political leaders around the world have begun to deploy the label ‘fake news’ as a smear on fact-finding by journalists, human rights organizations, perhaps even prosecutors," wrote Iain Levine of Human Rights Watch. "In doing so, they seek to break the link between evidence and culpability, making it more difficult to ensure those accountable pay for their misdeeds."
Contact John Kruzel at [email protected] Follow @johnkruzel.