Donald Trump loves to deride all news unfavorable to him as “fake“. It’s his go to insult whenever confronted by the media. To no great surprise, outlets that ingratiate themselves to Trump — Fox News and its many anchors, One America News Network, and Breitbart — escape such labels despite peddling conspiracy theories and giving white supremacists a platform to wallow in hate. Trump’s derision comes baselessly, but has real effects: Almost half of all Americans think the media makes up stories about Trump, meaning that our nation begins to operate with different facts as it loses faith in democratic institutions. An alternative reality emerges for those who choose to accept universal administration claims of “fake news.” Foreign leaders are taking note of this phenomena.
Seeing how Trump’s simple dismissals of criticism and negative coverage can goad millions into thinking the same, foreign leaders responsible for atrocious crimes and conditions follow a similar authoritarian playbook, falsely stating that media lies in its stories of horrors.
Since 1988, Rodrigo Duterte, now president of the Philippines, has encouraged and endorsed the extrajudicial murders of suspected drug dealers and alleged addicts as part of his literal war on drugs. It began with the Davao Death Squad, which emerged when Duterte was mayor of the city, and accelerated upon his election as president. Some 7,000 have been killed since June of 2016, all without trial or anything other than whatever evidence the police decide warrants killing (often times, the police fabricate evidence). Duterte himself has bragged about murdering suspects, including throwing one from a helicopter.
These well-documented illegal killings — crimes against humanity — shock the world and our sense of justice, but many in the Philippines continue to support Duterte (so, apparently, does Donald Trump, who praised Duterte’s handling of the drug problem). Filippinos may support Duterte’s lethal efforts because they simply don’t believe the depths of its violence.
“I have been demonized. And well, of course, I will assure you upon my oath as a lawyer and before God that some are true, some are not. And the extrajudicial tag that has been placed on me is simply not true,” Duterte said during a gathering of ASEAN Law Association Governing Council in Malacañang. In other words, Duterte’s claiming to be a victim of “fake news” (Duterte’s campaign spent around $250,000 to trolls who flooded the internet with actual fake news that supported the candidate. Another organization, the Duterte Diehard Supporters — DDS, borrowing the acronym from the Davos Death Squad — routinely posts fake news and in return has its regulars promoted to government positions).
Duterte, like Trump, latches onto the idea that media is fake — or, at least, that he can make people believe the press is fake. This give shim cover for his illegal and atrocious actions by undermining the sources of independent information, the information that doesn’t align with administration talking points or desires.
Aung San Suu Kyi
In Myanmar, more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighboring Bangladesh after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts in late August, prompting a massive military crackdown. This crackdown has resulted in the slaughter of babies, the cutting off boys’ heads, the gang-rape of girls, and arson achieved by throwing grenades into houses. Soliders have summarily executed unarmed male villagers.
Between 1,000 and 5,000 have been killed — we don’t know the exact numbers because Myanmar won’t let the United Nations into the affected areas — in what the UN calls “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Bodies wash up in the tide in coastal Bangladesh. The military has razed 288 villages and organized massacres in what human rights organizations call a systematic effort to erase Rohingyan communities. It’s the largest human dispersion since the Rwandan genocide.
Myanmar’s de fact leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, somehow a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, told Turkish President Recep Erdogan, himself an aspiring autocrat, that “fake news [helps] terrorists” in the Rohingyan communities. She further said that the crisis in Rakhine state is being distorted by a “huge iceberg of misinformation”. And this defense is working. Millions of Buddhists in the country stand by Aung San Suu Kyi and simply deny reports on the crisis as “a lot of fake news.” The government’s defense of a crisis under control but made worse by fake news, rumor, and innuendo spread by the media has resonated with a population predisposed to disliking the Rohingyan Muslims. In other words, claiming “fake news” plays into religious/racial bias and helps citizens ignore ethnic cleansing in country’s northern region.
The Trump Effect
As Samantha Power, author of a powerful book about the Rwandan genocide, states, this is “the Trump effect in action.” Foreign leaders see the benefit of crying “fake news” at everything critical; they realize loyal partisans and supporters will believe them, especially when the victimized group is already detested. But they take the fake news defense a step further by using it to excuse inaction in crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing.
That’s the real danger of the leader of the free world leading the fake news defense charge: It can be appropriated by borderline evil leaders trying to coverup atrocities while retaining popularity.
Undermining the press has serious consequences. Donald Trump needs to learn that. He’s an example to the world, unfortunately, and others learn from what he does and apply it to suit their needs. Be wary, Donald.