The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s ‘fake news’ mantra becomes an effective weapon — against America

President Trump at West Palm Beach, Fla., on Monday.
President Trump at West Palm Beach, Fla., on Monday. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

After the United States last week accused the Russian-backed Assad regime in Syria of a chemical-weapons attack, Russia had a ready rejoinder: сфабрикованная информация.

Fake News.

A Kremlin statement dismissed “the latest fake news about a chemical attack on Douma,” calling the charges “absolutely unsubstantiated lies.”

After the Trump administration had accused China of stealing technology, Beijing responded this month by calling the charge that it forces foreign firms to share technology “fake news.

In Missouri last week, Gov. Eric Greitens (R), facing trial next month on charges related to sexual impropriety, said he was the victim of “fake charges” resulting from a “witch hunt.”

Also last week, the U.S. Marine Corps ­suspended Brig. Gen. Kurt Stein, who this month disparaged as “fake news” allegations of sexual harassment at his command, USA Today reported.

President Trump pioneered the use of the term “fake news” to discredit any report he didn’t like. Now the same allegation is being used against the United States abroad by adversaries, and against legitimate authorities at home by those credibly accused of misdeeds.

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If Trump’s goal was to debase the very notion of truth, then he can truly say “Mission ­Accomplished.”

Trump’s constant branding of real events as fake has squandered U.S. credibility. When the United States correctly tries to discredit others’ disinformation and propaganda, it is now the country that cried wolf. A search of the website Factbase, which aggregates all the president’s words, shows that Trump has used the “fake news” label more than 350 times since December 2016. This month alone, he has used it to cast doubt on topics including Syria, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, China, North Korea, the North American Free Trade Agreement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Sinclair Broadcasting.

Trump’s method is acquiring many unsavory imitators here at home. Roy Moore’s Senate campaign in Alabama fought allegations about inappropriate relationships with teenage girls by branding them “fake news.” Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), who resigned over using taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment claim, dismissed the “false” charges against him. White supremacist David Duke thanked Trump after he retweeted a British anti-Muslim video for “showing us what the fake news media won’t.”

More problematic is what is happening ­overseas:

Scandal-plagued Israeli Prime Minister ­Benjamin Netanyahu last month labeled major Israeli news outlets “fake news” and said they “lie to you night in and night out.” Earlier this year, Israel’s minister of communications said those “bringing fake news are bringing upon themselves a death sentence.”

India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting this month briefly attempted to crack down on journalists for spreading “fake news.”

In December, a state security ministry official in Burma said its genocidal campaign against Rohingya Muslims is “fake news” because “there is no such thing as Rohingya,” the New York Times reported.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad dismissed a report about deaths in military prisons by saying “we are living in a fake-news era.”

Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro says reports in the world media about his repressive regime are “what we call ‘fake news’ today.”

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, known for his extralegal killings, justified a media crackdown by accusing news outlets of “fake news.”

Libya used Trump’s claim about “fake news” CNN to knock down a report by the network about slavery in Libya.

Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, who has jailed journalists, applauded Trump’s fake-news attack on CNN.

Uganda justified detaining newspaper editors by claiming they published “fake news” about the government.

Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, said reports about police violence to stop Catalonia’s independence referendum were “fake news.”

Scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia said that allegations against him are “fake news.”

Suppose, in this America First era, that you don’t care about what’s happening in Cambodia or Uganda or Venezuela. You might care that when the United States needs to counter actual fake news, Trump’s fake-news charge is boomeranging.

Turkey’s strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan , accused the United States in February of “spreading fake news” and of operating a “lie machine” about civilian casualties during Turkey’s military operations in Syria.

China has applied the fake-news label to reports that it tortured a human rights lawyer, that it reduced its buying of U.S. debt and that it was increasing support to North Korea.

The Communist Party’s People’s Daily argued that Trump’s “fake news” claims should cast doubt on media reports about China, and the Chinese military launched a website for people to report fake news.

Russia’s foreign ministry, similarly, has been using a “fake” logo in red to discredit unhelpful news. Its own disinformation campaigns, meanwhile, are destabilizing the globe. Taking a brief break from election tampering last year, Russia used bogus photos to accuse the United States of supporting the Islamic State.

That was fake news — really. But why should anybody believe us?

Twitter: @Milbank

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Read more on this issue:

Jennifer Rubin: What a new poll about Trump and ‘fake news’ really says

Kirsten Han: Why Singapore’s moves to curb ‘fake news’ may backfire

Erik Wemple: It’s official: ‘Fake news’ means nothing

Barkha Dutt: Like the Trump administration, Modi’s government has a fake news problem