‘Fake News’ Tool for Authoritarian Regimes to Silence Citizens
The “spreading fake news” charge has become a frequent justification to suppress critique by authoritarian governments around the world. The allegations allow regimes to discredit individuals that challenge their control.
Abdullah Morsi, the youngest son of imprisoned former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, was detained by Egyptian security forces earlier this month. He was later released on bail after media outlets began to report on his disappearance. The 25-year-old was targeted by the Egyptian state a week after Associated Press interviewed him regarding his father’s solitary confinement and deteriorating health. Egypt’s Attorney General asserted that the detention of the young business student was the result of “spreading fake news,” despite reports that corroborate Abdullah’s statements that years of solitary confinement and mistreatment threaten his father’s survival.
The Egyptian state frequently relies on the charge of “spreading fake news” to silence any form of critique or dissent. In July, the government passed a sweeping media law that has given legal cover to the prosecution and imprisonment of journalists, bloggers, and other social media users.
In the case of non-journalists like Abdullah Morsi, simply acknowledging facts can unleash persecution. Actor and former activist Amal Fathy posted a video criticizing sexual harassment in Egypt, a widely recognized problem that has been formally acknowledged in reports by the UN and Thompson Reuters. She was imprisoned on charges of “spreading fake news” and “damaging public order and harming the national interest.”
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi appears to view any recognition that life in Egypt is less than perfect as a potential threat to his rule.
Justification for Authoritarian Regimes
The “spreading fake news” charge has become a frequent justification to suppress critique by authoritarian governments around the world. U.S. President Donald J. Trump popularized the phrase in English and has repeatedly applauded violence against journalists. His antipathy towards journalists has prompted his supporters to attack members of the media, and in 2017 Walmart offered and later banned a t-shirt that encouraged lynching journalists.
— Brett Mason (@BrettMasonNews) November 7, 2016
The discrediting of media sources has splintered the U.S. electorate, with Republicans and Democrats tending to consume news that conveys a partisan perspective. In this environment, it is easy for figures like Trump to convince supporters that even objective reporting is false and politically motivated.
Governments around the world are introducing legislation to crack down on “fake news,” and frequently use new laws to silence criticism.
The Russian parliament introduced a bill to hold social networks accountable for users’ posts, which critics say will further suppress speech. Qatar was the first state to introduce laws targeting fake news with its 2014 cybercrime law. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines accused media outlets of spreading fake news when they reported on financial misconduct by his assistant.
Allegations of fake news allow authoritarian governments to discredit individuals or views that challenge their control.
Ironically, the internet is largely responsible for creating an environment in which the expression of dissent carries the risk of government or vigilante retribution. Initially hailed as a tool to facilitate unprecedented freedom of expression and access to information, instead, the internet has undermined journalism: users can read free but sometimes false content, paying for traditional news has largely ceased, and the quality and coverage of reporting has declined.
Lack of Outcry
Surviving media outlets tend to rely on partisan viewpoints to attract readers that are increasingly accustomed to content that reflects their existing views. As a result, media consumers are less frequently challenged with information they disagree with, and when they are, they dismiss it as inaccurate. In this environment, accusations of spreading false news elicit few reactions except from other concerned journalists and activists.
In Egypt, this lack of outcry has permitted the Egyptian government to detain thousands of people since President Sisi overthrew Mohammed Morsi in the 2013 coup. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that Morsi represented, have been particularly targeted.
However, Egyptian journalists, activists, and merely unlucky individuals have all been detained, many of them indefinitely. The 22-year-old Abdelrahman al-Gendy was imprisoned along with his father in 2013 on false charges of murder. He has written about his life in prison for Mada Masr, one of the few surviving independent news organizations. He remains incarcerated along with President Morsi and thousands of others, facing abuse and potential torture in Egypt’s infamous Tora prison.
Despite overthrowing President Mubarak during the Arab Uprising, some Egyptians may look longingly to his presidency. Although by 2011 the 82-year-old president had held power for almost 30 years, the final decade of his rule saw increased economic development and relative freedom for Egyptian journalists, scholars, and artists.
Although Mubarak prevented actual political challenge, The Brotherhood and other Islamist groups were permitted to run candidates in elections and held seats in Parliament. Egypt weathered the financial crisis of 2008 with relative ease, and Mubarak’s so-called “business-oriented cabinet” of 2006 worked to reform Egypt’s notorious red tape and promised that ordinary Egyptians would begin to benefit from direct foreign investment.
These rising expectations contributed to the sense of grievance that motivated many protestors into the streets in 2011. It was nostalgia for the stability of the Mubarak era that contributed to protests against Morsi in 2013, which Sisi used as justification for his coup.
President Sisi and his cronies appear determined not to replicate the leniency of Mubarak’s later years. After he seized power, President Sisi’s regime arrested over 40,000 people on political grounds. Secret detentions have continued, prompting the Egyptian Commission of Rights and Freedoms to develop an app that would alert human rights groups if an individual was detained.
Despite outcry from human rights organizations, the U.S. continues to sponsor the Egyptian government with the largest package of foreign assistance after Israel.
Trump has expressed admiration for President Sisi, as well as for Vladimir Putin and Duterte. Trump has also frequently expressed his desire to imprison Hillary Clinton. If politicians like Donald Trump are rewarded with elected office despite adopting authoritarian hostility towards a free press, both the press and the democracy it supports may be in danger.