How “Fake News” Became an Authoritarian Weapon

Image by Mack Lagoy

Abdo Fayed was getting ready for sleep when he must have heard the slamming at the door. Not long before, the 31-year-old Giza native had taken to Facebook to write about an artist he’d known who, like thousands of other Egyptians, had lost their lives to Covid-19. Abdo was dismayed, distraught; he was disgusted by his government’s response. In his eyes, the artist’s death and so many others were avoidable, had only President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi taken stronger, faster action. It’s this criticism, levied at the president, that ultimately led a team of security agents to wade through Egypt’s warm summer air and camp outside Abdo’s house at 1:30 in the morning. Soon they would be inside and soon, Abdo would disappear.

As I write this, the world is two weeks removed from a US presidency marred by cacophonous chaos. Each day, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden uses strokes of his executive pen to overturn short-lived legislation rammed through by the previous president. In the years to come, like his ephemeral executive decrees, much of Donald Trump’s legacy may fizzle to nothing more than a distant memory. But there’s at least one relic of the Trump era that’s here to stay and poised to expand. That’s the former president’s bastardization of the term, “fake news.”

Fake news, of course, is real and exists, but the days and weeks and years following November 3, 2016, imbued the term with an entirely new meaning. For Trump and his surrogates, fake news wasn’t merely a descriptor of the untrue, but rather a weapon used against opponents levying any type of criticism. At worse, in the US that meant harassment of journalists, the toxification of public communication, and most recently, the storming of the capitol building by misled ideologues donning Viking costumes and AR-15s.

All across the world though, dictators and leaders of countries with laxer civil liberty protections were taking notes. From Egypt to Turkey, members of the respective security states began using the term “fake news” to squash political dissent in all its forms. Many of the new laws passed implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, cited Trump’s rhetoric as a justification. In some ways, his decrees, often delivered through all caps Twitter tirades, served as a call to action.

Laws like these are what led to Abdo’s late-night abduction.

Abdo was no stranger to politics. For years he had written on Egypt and international relations for Al-Manassa and the private news site Ida2at. Often his journalism would contain commentary — critical but legal — levied against the government. Occasionally, some of his views would wind up on his personal Facebook page. Once inside his home, the police interrogated Abdo over those Facebook posts.

It’s hard to say whether the Covid-19 post was the true culprit or a convenient scapegoat to silence an unwieldy dissident. Either way, Abdo was dragged out of his house and charged with joining a terrorist organization. The government had officially accused him of spreading fake news.

While Abdo’s tale is shocking, it’s not unusual. Egypt, in particular, has accounted for a striking rise in arrests following the passage of a 2018 Cyber Crime law that, among other things, criminalizes fake news. Yet, what the government labels “fake news” is often political dissent by any other name. Egypt’s not alone. In recent years Vietnam, Tanzania, Turkey, Russia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Singapore have all wielded accusations of fake news to imprison dissidents.

This influx of incarceration doesn’t exist in a vacuum. While it’s easy to write off the authoritarian impulses of repressive government as anomalous, these laws take inspiration from and are in effect amplified by leaders in the world’s most powerful democracies.

These fake news laws and arrests have occurred with even more frequency during the pandemic — a time marked by lockdowns and national states of emergency. According to an AFP report, nearly 300 people were arrested across 10 Asian countries last year for allegedly posting false or misleading information related to the coronavirus pandemic. People arrested under these charges ran the gamut of professions and social status, from political opposition members in Cambodia to television personalities in Malaysia. Often what’s called fake news in these situations really reads as political dissent or commentary to any reasonable person. In Sri Lanka, for example, a woman spent three days in jail for posting a prank message where she claimed the president had tested positive for Covid-19.

Trump is uniquely to blame here, but he’s not the only problem. In other countries, well-intentioned laws aimed at criminalizing hate speech and online misinformation have similarly been co-opted by the world’s authoritarian. Of particular concern — a 2019 law passed by the German government called The Network Enforcement Act.

The law, aimed at curtailing vile hate speech, took effect following a series of right-wing backlash to the government’s decision to accept over one million refugees. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies agreed to remove extremist content within 24 hours of it being uploaded as a compromise to stave off regulation. The companies, in the German government’s eyes, however, failed to live up to their end of the bargain, leading to the implementation of the new law which among other provisions, imposes “intermediary liability” for social media networks with over two million users. Companies that fail to remove “unlawful” content on time face up to $55 million in fines.

Reporters at Foreign Policy found, that “less than two years the [German] law has essentially been copy-pasted by governments around the world — most of which do not match Germany’s commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.” Amongst those copying the German model were Venezuela, Vietnam, Russia, and Belarus. In Singapore, officials even referenced the German law by name as inspiration prior to the release of a preliminary report on their fake news laws.

Vietnam’s new Law on Cybersecurity is especially harsh. Passed in 2018, the legislation prohibits, “propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” and criminalizes, “causing divisions or hatred between ethnic groups, religions, and people of all countries.” Vietnamese residents can even find themselves jailed for actions such as insulting party leaders or mocking the national anthem.

Back in 2018, while working at New York Magazine I covered the early days of Egypt’s Cybercrime law, which in the years since has proven to be amongst the world’s most repressive. There, government officials possess the ability to ban “fake” content from anyone possessing more than 5,000 social media followers. Officially, individuals surpassing this follower count are treated the same as a media company. For context, there are popular dog Instagram accounts with more than 5,000 followers. Months after it passed, the crime claimed one of its highest-profile victims, actress Amal Fathy, who was arrested for “spreading false news” after she uploaded a post where she claimed a police officer had sexually harassed her. She faced the prospect of two years in prison for speaking out about the alleged assault.

When reporting those stories, I spoke to activists from Amnesty International and Access Now who both agreed the rising security laws and subsequent arrests featured a common through-line — inspiration from Donald Trump.

Trump is currently somewhere in Florida, presumably playing golf and prodding buddies who still have access to Twitter to tell him what people are saying about him. Yet, even if Trump the man has been banished to political oblivion, the fallout from his policies linger around the world, like the sour smell of grease stuck on clothes you just can’t manage to snuff out.

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Texas expat, freelance journalist. Work has been featured in New York Magazine, Motherboard and Medium. I’m on Twitter @mackdegeurin

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