Telecommunications

Opinion: How fake news is being co-opted by governments around the world to suppress dissent

Opinion: How fake news is bein...
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
View 7 Images
An Egyptian protester during the 2011 revolution. (Credit: Kodak Agfa CC BY-SA 2.0)
1/7
An Egyptian protester during the 2011 revolution. (Credit: Kodak Agfa CC BY-SA 2.0)
Russia's fake news labeling system
2/7
Russia's fake news labeling system
The currently imprisoned Egyptian mother, Amal Fathy with her child
3/7
The currently imprisoned Egyptian mother, Amal Fathy with her child
Egypt's president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2015
4/7
Egypt's president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2015
Jim Acosta's reporting from a recent Florida rally
5/7
Jim Acosta's reporting from a recent Florida rally
One of Trump's recent fake news tweets
6/7
One of Trump's recent fake news tweets
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
7/7
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

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.

The currently imprisoned Egyptian mother, Amal Fathy with her child
The currently imprisoned Egyptian mother, Amal Fathy with her child

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."

Egypt's president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2015
Egypt's president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2015

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."

An Egyptian protester during the 2011 revolution. (Credit: Kodak Agfa CC BY-SA 2.0)
An Egyptian protester during the 2011 revolution. (Credit: Kodak Agfa CC BY-SA 2.0)

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."

Russia's fake news labeling system
Russia's fake news labeling system

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.

One of Trump's recent fake news tweets
One of Trump's recent fake news tweets

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.

Jim Acosta's reporting from a recent Florida rally
Jim Acosta's reporting from a recent Florida rally

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."

25 comments
Underseahunter
I am not an expert in international political science... My guess is that no other country has similar protections as afforded to Americans by our "first amendment." Duh. So why don't we just foist our entire Constitution and Bill of Rights onto these luddittes? Beat them over the head with our founding documents. My second guess is that some other countries wouldn't like their citizens to have that much freedom and the responsibility that comes with liberty. Fake news is the enemy of ignorant people without alternate sources of news. Yes, it has morphed from previously being labeled, "propaganda." In the case of some news outlets in the USA, what is NOT being said is more important than the pablum they are reporting. The level of discourse has stooped to new lows. Ad hominem attacks, and the politics of personal destruction are only aimed at people the press disagrees with. Imagine substituting the name "Trump" with the name "obama." Oh the outrage that would follow... Hypocrisy. Before you turn to flame me, I am a Libertarian, and don't want any of your fascist ideology.
Brian M
This topic is a tricky one, press and personal freedom of speech is important, but they also carry with it great power. 'False news' and misinformation is just as a powerful a weapon as the gun, maybe more so as people don't even know they have been attacked. Perhaps the deliberate spreading of false news with malintent should be a crime. With a simple defence that you have reasonable grounds to believe the facts are true based on evidence or a reliable source. But of course the problem comes with the definition of 'reasonable'. The real bonus of such a law is that many politicians would be behind bars!
JustJim
Opinions masquerading as news or as facts is Fake News.
AutoQuickStop
Calling out the "Fake News" is important and a must! We just can't stand back and let anyone to say 2 plus 2 equals 5. The sample picture CNN Jim Acosta posted, hinting "journalist may get hurt". I don't see spiked club with face hidden behind masks in the crowd, do you? It's mostly the extreme, left, and my way or no way liberals who came to protest in every event that prepared to instigate mayhem on to the free speech people. Just like these States, Countries referred to in this article which took the phrase "fake news" and weaponized it against their own "free speech people". President Trump's MAGA is now making visible the countries globally which are insecure and want to censor free speech, which after all, is free speech depend on who and how to use it properly.
Joe Blough
No.1 Despot and serial liar: Donald F'ing TrumpHole of the USA.
Altairtech
Excellent article. As the governments are now working mostly against their citizens, rather than FOR them, it's not surprising that many independent journalists have taken the task of trying to point out and fight the constant lies that are spread out by all the official medias. Important note, ALL the medias are now owned/controlled by the left. So right there, we have an extreme bias being applied on all the official "news". The independent journalists can only publish their work on the internet, wich itself is being censored more and more every day. All the big media sites (Youtube, Facebook, Twittre, etc.) are also controlled by the left. These independent journalists began using the term Fake News when they commented on the official narratives of the medias. Then the medias themselves began using the term in retaliation against the speakers of truth. They started this war to keep control on the population, but we have to ask ourselves, to what end exactly? Why are they going to such lengths to prevent the real truth from being known? What are they hiding really? Everyone of us is sensing that something is very wrong in the world right now, with division against each other being the main result. Why do Fake News even exist?
antiguajohn98
Researchers rely on the wisdom of the crowd. Politicians count on the ignorance of the masses. Scientia Non Domus, (Knowledge had No Home) antiguajohn
Toad
We can play the blame game all we want, pointing the finger in every direction. But the blame started with the media, when they quit reporting facts, and started reporting opinion. In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution was intended to protect a free and independent media who could report the truth without having the approval of the government, king, grand poobah, or whatever. But the media has abused that freedom, becoming a mouth-organ for political parties instead of reporting unbiased facts.
Robert in Vancouver
Two Special Rapporteurs from the UN say that Trump is a liar. But they can't be believed either. Special Rapporteurs from the UN said Canada is guilty of starving it's people and creating food insecurity. Of course they said that when we had a Consevative Prime Minister. Now that we have a looney leftist as PM, the UN is heaping praise on Canada for borrowing and spending, raising taxes on middle and lower wage earners, and most important, giving billions more to the UN than we normally give.
Chijazz
The Press is not the enemy, but those in the media that Hate our President and the Constitution, are definitely the enemy and traitors of America. There is more Fake and Hateful News Against President Trump than Real News. If you don’t believe that, then you aren’t paying attention!