America may be retreating from global leadership, but the influence its president can exert remains astonishing. When George W. Bush made democracy the theme of his second inaugural address, leaders around the world rushed to echo his words and claim to follow his example. Washington was treated to the unlikely sight of the emir of Qatar and the president-for-life of Azerbaijan extolling the virtues of free elections.
President Trump’s impact has been a little different. His America-first protectionism doesn’t export very well. But his most pungent trope, “fake news,” has arguably become the most influential U.S. political export since Bush’s “freedom agenda.” Needless to say, the effect has not been the same.
As Trump loosed new volleys of anti-media rhetoric last week, I undertook a review that quickly turned up 28 countries where the terms “fake news” or “false news” have been used to attack legitimate journalists and truthful reporting in the past 18 months. One of the regimes, of course, is Azerbaijan, and many others are autocracies where independent reporters are perpetually under pressure. But democracies have embraced Trump’s cause as well: Taiwan is among the more than half-dozen countries where new laws criminalizing news the government deems fake have been passed or are under consideration.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front party set up a “fake news alert team” to post bulletins about allegedly false reports on the national public channel France 2. In Italy, the leader of the Five Star Movement, now part of the governing coalition, proposed creating a “popular jury” to identify false news. In India, the government adopted a plan to suspend the accreditation of journalists deemed to have propagated fake news, before retreating in the face of a wave of outrage.
Cambodian strongman Hun Sen publicly thanked Trump this year for pointing out the evils of independent journalists, saying, “Donald Trump understands that they are an anarchic group.” But Trump was also hailed by the president of nominally democratic Poland, Andrzej Duda, for “stress[ing] again the power of fake news.” “Thank you,” Duda tweeted. “We must continue to fight that phenomenon.”
Two of Trump’s favorite allies, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, have taken the next logical step: echoing his claims about U.S. media. Sissi’s ministry of foreign affairs called CNN “deplorable,” while Netanyahu has accused both CNN and the New York Times of “fake news.” Before plunging into a feud with Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also chimed in, saying that CNN’s reporting on Trump’s connections to Russia was fake. (After relations soured, he accused the Pentagon of “spreading fake news.”)
It might be argued that Trump’s rhetoric merely supplies a cover for attacks on media that would probably happen anyway. But that doesn’t account for the wave of pending and enacted legislation criminalizing “fake news” in countries including Singapore, Kenya and Belarus. The charge has become justification for closing down websites in the Philippines and Vietnam. It has put journalists on trial in Lebanon and Iraq. In short, Trump’s concept of “fake news” has given persecutors of the press a handy new tool.
Egypt offers perhaps the best example of U.S. presidential influence. After Bush made his “freedom agenda” speech, then-dictator Hosni Mubarak took some substantive steps to appease the White House, including relaxing controls on the Egyptian press and allowing a prominent critic to run against him for president. Independent newspapers in Cairo flourished. Egypt didn’t become a democracy, but it became free enough to allow the 2011 revolution to germinate.
Sissi has taken the opposite cue from Trump. Before his presidential election this year, his regime launched a campaign against independent journalists and bloggers, even setting up a hotline for fake news leads. At least 19 people have been imprisoned or arrested on fake news charges, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In July, Sissi’s rubber-stamp parliament passed a sweeping new law criminalizing the dissemination of “fake news” by anyone with more than 5,000 social media followers. “Fake news” was not defined, but any website deemed to distribute it can be blocked.
Among those being prosecuted are Wael Abbas, a famous blogger who has reported on torture and other abuses by police, and Amal Fathy, who was arrested along with her husband after she posted a video on Facebook about sexual harassment of women.
Naturally, none of this has perturbed Trump, who has called Sissi a “fantastic guy” who is “doing a fantastic job.” Just after the fake news law passed, the administration released $195 million in U.S. military aid to Cairo that had previously been withheld on human rights grounds. The decision had a certain logic: After all, Sissi has done nothing more than embrace Trump’s pet cause.
— With assistance by Jackson Diehl