Opinion: How fake news is being co-opted by governments around the world to suppress dissent
In early May, 33-year-old Egyptian mother Amal Fathy posted an angry video to Facebook. Fathy was at the tail end of a particularly stressful day. She had been sexually harassed on two occasions, within a matter of hours, and after getting home she published a frank video criticizing everything from the police to the misogynistic culture ever-present in her country.
Two days later, at 2.30am, the police raided her house, detaining Fathy, her husband, and their two-year-old son. After a few hours Fathy's husband and son were released but she remained, and the next day was officially charged with an assortment of crimes including, "disseminating a video on social media to publicly incite overthrowing the government", "using a website to promote ideas calling for terrorist acts", and "publishing a video that includes false news that could harm public peace".
In June, some of the charges against Fathy were overturned on appeal, but as of the beginning of August she is still being held in pre-trial detention. Human rights groups have slammed the Egyptian government's actions calling for Fathy to be released immediately.
In mid-July, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified a new law literally criminalizing the dissemination of "fake news". While the government already had in place strict regulations allowing for prosecution of media outlets that overtly criticize the government or the country, this new 45-article bill entitled the Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes law, dramatically broadens the government's powers classifying any person with a social media account and more that 5,000 followers as an official media outlet. This in effect extends the government's ability to suppress dissenting opinion across all social media channels.
In a recent speech, Sisi claimed 21,000 false rumors had been detected by the government in just a three month period, and he suggested any messages that spread instability must be suppressed in order to keep the country from imploding.
"The real danger is blowing up countries from within," said Sisi "Rumors, acts of terrorism, loss of hope and feeling of frustration, all these work in a grand network aimed at one objective, only one objective, and that is to move people to destroy their country.
"Destroying our countries will not happen unless it came from within. We must be alert and pay attention to what is being spun against us in secret."
The new face of fake news
Fake news is not a new phenomenon. From tabloid media hoaxes to the dissemination of official government propaganda, fabricated news stories have been a problem since the invention of the printing press. In recent years though the term has slowly morphed into something else. After the chaotic noise of the 2016 US Presidential election, where we saw a vociferous influx of dodgy websites and dubious social media posts, the term fake news was suddenly thrust into the mainstream. Since becoming President, Donald Trump has lobbed the term out constantly and turned it a rhetorical turn of phase deigned to discredit negative news coverage.
"He took this term that had been used against him and turned it into a weapon against the media itself," explains Joel Simon, from the Committee to Protect Journalists. "The meaning has been so diluted and distorted that it's just become an insult without a lot of meaning."
But the most concerning trend to arise over the past year or two has been the tendency for authoritarian leaders around the world to take the term and use it to directly suppress dissent. Vague anti-fake news laws are being instituted in several countries around the world and civil liberties groups are suggesting they are being used by despotic leaders to silence opposition and quash free speech.
In early April 2018 the Malaysian government, led at the time by Prime Minister Najib Razak, passed an Anti-Fake News bill. The new law was instituted to "protect the public from fake news," according to the country's law minister. Covering all forms of publishing including individual social media accounts, it proposes fines of over $US100,000 and up to six years in jail for anyone found disseminating, "news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false."
Even the US State Department expressed concern over the broad reach of the law but following an election, and a new Prime Minister, the laws still remain. New Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, although campaigning with the suggestion he would abolish the laws, now says they will simply be redefined as there must be "limits" to freedom of the press.
Affirming the source of this whole fake news movement, a senior Malaysian official attributed the new law to US President Donald Trump. "Fake news has become a global phenomenon, but Malaysia is at the tip of the spear in trying to fight it with an anti-fake news law," Fadhlullah Suhaimi Abdul Male toldThe New York Times in April. "When the American president made 'fake news' into a buzzword, the world woke up."
Fake news around the globe
Earlier this year Kenya passed a new cybercrime law, ostensibly criminalizing those administering abuse or harassment through social media platforms, but also penalizing individuals that take part in the "publication of false information". Large fines and penalties of up to two years in jail await those convicted.
Ongoing discussions in Singapore have floated new fake news laws, with a member of the government committee investigating the potential new regulations, suggesting it could be a robust approach similar to the way the country deals with illicit drugs. Singapore currently prescribes the death penalty for drug trafficking.
And on it goes: in April, a Cambodian government spokesperson suggested a fake news law is in the works to "prevent people from saying wrong things"; Belarus passed an anti-fake news law in June, allowing for the prosecution of people the government considers to be spreading false information; and even Taiwan, a country known as one of the more open press environments in Asia, has raised the specter of jail or fines for the spread of fake news on the internet.
The term itself has been co-opted and parroted all over the globe, often by authoritarian leaders as a way to silence information critical of their government. Russia created a fake news stamp to label news stories it believes contain false information; Syrian President Bashar Assad brushed off accusations of human rights abuses by simply saying, "We are living in a fake news era"; Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has dismissed critical news sources as "fake news outlets"; and a 2017 article in the Chinese state-run news outlet the People's Daily was headlined, "Trump is right, fake news is the enemy, something China has known for years."
In some cases push back from the press and public has resulted in governments stepping away from instituting fake news laws. After the Indian government earlier this year threatened to withdraw official accreditation from journalists accused of publishing fake news, the prime minister quickly backed off from the proposition following an extraordinary backlash from the media.
And while many of these new laws are quite overtly implemented as tools for authoritarian leaders to suppress dissent, other more ostensibly democratic western governments have also been grappling with ways to control the dissemination of what they deem to be fake news.
At the beginning of 2018, French president Emmanuel Macron put fake news clearly in his sights after a contentious election in 2017 where he was the subject of what he claimed to be a large-scale disinformation campaign. After months of heated debate, the French Parliament ultimately passed a new fake news law in July that takes effect within three months of any given general election. The law allows for swift emergency legal action permitting authorities to block manipulative and false information within 48 hours of it being brought to the attention of a judge. If, after 48 hours, a judge cannot confirm the news contains information from verifiable sources the government is allowed to block those publishing sources. The law in effects turns the courts into fact-checkers deciding on the truthfulness of any contentious news article.
Members of the European Union have frequently raised concern over the spread of fake news, and its effects on free elections, but the EU has refused to suggest legislation as the answer. An EU commission report published in early 2018 accepted disinformation as a major problem, but recommended media literacy campaigns and enhanced transparency of online news as ways to tackle the problem.
A source working on the project suggested the commission's avoidance of explicit legislation was related to a concern that governmentally driven censorship could stifle freedom of expression. "We don't want to be viewed as the Ministry of Truth," said Mariya Gabriel, a member of the team working on the project.
Fake news, enemy of the people
Back in the United States and the looming fake news war seems to be forging a completely different path. Despite President Trump's ongoing battles with the mainstream media, it is difficult to see some kind of censorious law being passed. The country's first amendment does explicitly protect the freedom of the press, but Trump's ongoing characterization of the "fake news media" is seen by some as a thinly veiled strategy to discredit those news sources that simply cover the government in a negative light.
David Kaye and Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression for the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, recently published a joint statement arguing the consequences of an American president repeatedly questioning the credibility of the media will have long-term implications on the public trust in these important institutions.
"His attacks are strategic, designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts," the pair write in their public statement. "Each time the President calls the media 'the enemy of the people' or fails to allow questions from reporters from disfavoured outlets, he suggests nefarious motivations or animus. But he has failed to show even once that specific reporting has been driven by any untoward motivations."
Trump has undeniably increased his overt criticism of the media in recent months, ramping up the fake news rhetoric. Video from a recent Trump rally in Tampa, Florida showed unprecedented hostility directed at media outlets.
A.G. Sulzberger, from The New York Times, recently met with Trump to express concerns over the increasingly inflammatory tension being stoked between the media and the government. In a statement from Sulzberger following the meeting, he suggested the president's language is becoming dangerous.
"I told him that although the phrase 'fake news' is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists 'the enemy of the people.' I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence," Sulzberger writes.
Fake news is certainly a real problem, no question about it. Misinformation being spread, masquerading as truth, intended to undermine certain governments, groups, or people, is an issue the world needs to rapidly tackle. However, the phenomenon of fake news has slowly morphed into something more than simply false information.
It has become shorthand for news we don't agree with. It has been weaponized into a tool for governments around the world to quash information it doesn't approve of. It is being used to jail those presenting opposing viewpoints.
Trump himself summed up the fake news rhetoric in a nutshell with a frank comment to a journalist back in 2016, "You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you."