Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., leaves a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators, Monday Jan. 22, 2018. Earlier this month Flake used a Senate speech to rip President Donald Trump’s use of “despotic language to refer to the free press,” saying, “This is reprehensible.” (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Photo: Jacquelyn Martin
Photo: Jacquelyn Martin

PolitiFact: Dictators have adopted ‘fake news’ label

Hours before President Donald Trump gave his “fake news awards,” one Republican lawmaker took to the Senate floor to deliver a stern warning about undermining journalism.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., cautioned that Trump’s anti-press rhetoric, such as calling the New York Times, CNN and ABC News an “enemy of the American people,” serves to embolden repressive governments around the world.

“Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press,” Flake said, “but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible.”

Flake then ticked off several examples where foreign leaders deployed the phrase “fake news” to foster distrust of the media. Based on our review of the evidence, it’s reasonable to conclude that Trump’s disparagement of the media has been replicated abroad.

An aide to Flake said he had referred to a Politico article that identified more than 15 instances where foreign leaders invoked the phrase “fake news.” Here’s a sample:

• Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in February called an Amnesty International report that up to 13,000 prisoners had been executed in one of his military prisons “fake news.”

• A security official in Buddhist-majority Myanmar in December used the term “fake news” to deny the existence of the Rohingya people, a persecuted Muslim minority who are being ethnically cleansed, according to the United Nations.

• Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in July said it was “fake news” that a constitutional crisis was playing out in Venezuela against a backdrop of widespread protests, human rights abuses and long-standing economic privation.

There’s reason to think Trump, who has helped popularize the phrase “fake news,” inspired these responses.

According to CNN, Trump has used the word “fake” more than 400 times since his inauguration, including “fake news” and its variants. Overall, use of the phrase “fake news” across all forms of media increased 365 percent from November 2016 to November 2017, according to the Collins Dictionary, which named “fake news” its 2017 word of the year.

At PolitiFact, we have used the term “fake news” for fabricated content masquerading as a portrayal of actual events.

Trump, however, uses “fake news” to dismiss coverage that is unsympathetic to him and his administration, or as a criticism against entire news organizations.

We found no mentions of “fake news” from foreign leaders before 2016.

The rise of the “fake news” epithet coincided with one of the most dangerous years for journalists.

Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists found 262 journalists were jailed for their work, a historic high for the second year in a row. In 21 cases, journalists were jailed under “false news” statutes, more than double the number in 2016, and in more countries, said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at Committee to Protect Journalists.

Our ruling

Trump popularized the phrase “fake news” over the past two years. There are more than a dozen recent instances where foreign leaders, including dictators and authoritarians, have invoked “fake news” to dismiss allegations against them. We found no mentions of “fake news” from foreign leaders before 2016.

Flake has solid examples from around the world to back up his statement, and there’s strong correlation here given the timeline. We rate this claim True.

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