BRUSSELS — President Trump routinely invokes the phrase “fake news” as a rhetorical tool to undermine opponents, rally his political base and try to discredit a mainstream American media that is aggressively investigating his presidency.
But he isn’t the only leader enamored with the phrase. Following Mr. Trump’s example, many of the world’s autocrats and dictators are taking a shine to it, too.
When Amnesty International released a report about prison deaths in Syria, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, retorted that “we are living in a fake-news era.” President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, who is steadily rolling back democracy in his country, blamed the global media for “lots of false versions, lots of lies,” saying “this is what we call ‘fake news’ today.”
In Myanmar, where international observers accuse the military of conducting a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya Muslims, a security official told The New York Times that “there is no such thing as Rohingya,” adding: “It is fake news.” In Russia, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, told a CNN reporter to “stop spreading lies and fake news.” Her ministry now uses a big red stamp, “FAKE,” on its website to label news stories it dislikes.
Around the world, authoritarians, populists and other political leaders have seized on the phrase “fake news” — and the legitimacy conferred upon it by an American president — as a tool for attacking their critics and, in some cases, deliberately undermining the institutions of democracy. In countries where press freedom is restricted or under considerable threat — including Russia, China, Turkey, Libya, Poland, Hungary, Thailand, Somalia and others — political leaders have invoked “fake news” as justification for beating back media scrutiny.
Just this week, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, People’s Daily, used Mr. Trump’s words to undercut critical media coverage of an increasingly authoritarian Beijing.