The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Putin’s Russia, ‘fake news’ now means real news

A term coined by misinformation researchers was coopted by President Trump. It has become a tool of authoritarians.

A Russian attack damaged a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9, in an event that Russian officials were quick to deem “fake news.” Under a new Russian law, publishing such reports is punishable by up to 15 years in jail. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)
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Last week, Russia passed a law making it a major crime to publish what it deems “fake” news about the country’s military. Violators could face 15 years in prison.

And what is “fake” news, exactly? That’s up to Russian authorities. Reportedly, it will include any references to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that call it an invasion, which would contradict the Kremlin’s insistence that it’s simply a “special military operation. The Kremlin has also applied the term “fake news” to reports that a Russian airstrike hit a maternity hospital in Ukraine.

In other words, fake news means real news.

The law is part of a sweeping crackdown on freedom of expression in the country as President Vladimir Putin tries to cover up the indefensible: an unprovoked invasion of a peaceful neighboring country.

Russia’s Orwellian use of the word “фейки” — a phonetic translation of the English word “fake” — to criminalize truth is the logical endpoint of a years-long heel turn for the term “fake news.” The concept was first popularized in the United States by well-meaning misinformation researchers to describe hoax websites that posed as news outlets to intentionally spread fabricated information. But it wasn’t long before it was turned against the media itself, most notably by the new president, Donald Trump.

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In 2014, a researcher at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism who tracked factual errors by media outlets was noticing a new trend: websites that looked like news outlets but published entirely made-up stories that would often go viral on Facebook and other social media platforms. The researcher, Craig Silverman, referred to them as “fake news” sites. Prior to that, the term “fake news” had appeared in fewer than 1,000 stories per year in major U.S. news outlets, most often in reference to satire sites such as the Onion that aim to amuse, not deceive, according to a query of the news database Factiva.

By 2016, the trend of hoax sites hoodwinking social media users with whole-cloth fabrications had exploded. Silverman, then a journalist at BuzzFeed, published an analysis that found the most viral “fake news” stories — such as a baseless report that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump — were reaching wider audiences on Facebook than real news stories from real news outlets. That was thanks in part to Facebook’s news feed algorithm, an efficient machine for widely distributing the posts that provoke the most reactions, regardless of whether they’re true.

Suddenly, fake news was big news in the United States, as Facebook faced pressure to crack down on misinformation and many liberals blamed those viral falsehoods for helping to propel Trump into office. But Trump, in a rhetorical masterstroke, saw an opportunity to twist the term to his own ends. By January 2017 he had adopted “fake news” as an epithet to characterize mainstream news reports that he wanted to dispute or cast doubt on. Over the course of his presidency, the term largely shed its original meaning, especially for Trump’s supporters, and came to mean instead any news report or outlet that made the president look bad.

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Trump’s rhetorical jujitsu was not lost on political leaders in other countries — particularly, but not exclusively, those with a populist or authoritarian bent. Numerous countries in recent years, from Singapore to Hungary to Vietnam, have passed laws against fake news or misinformation, some of them arguably using the covid-19 pandemic as cover for a press crackdown with wider implications. Russia previously passed fake news laws in 2019, instituting fines and jail sentences of up to 15 days for “unreliable” information that disrespects state authorities.

Russia’s latest law goes much farther, with jail terms up to 15 years. Media outlets that were prepared to navigate the threat of censorship and wrist-slaps under the previous laws have understandably balked at the prospect of their employees and journalists spending large chunks of their lives incarcerated.

In just the past week, news organizations from the BBC to the New York Times to Bloomberg News and tech platforms such as Netflix and TikTok have either suspended or scaled back their operations in Russia, contributing to a truth desert in the name of “fake news.” No doubt that was part of the Kremlin’s intent.

Silverman and other misinformation researchers have been distancing themselves from the term “fake news” for years. “I helped popularize the term ‘fake news’ and now I cringe every time I hear it,” Silverman wrote in 2017. Facebook, after initially denying that fake news played a significant role in the 2016 election, later pledged to crack down on it — but then dropped the term in favor of “false news” as it became politically loaded.

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Claire Wardle, a professor at Brown University and a leading misinformation researcher, said she also stopped using the term in 2017 when it became clear that it was being weaponized by politicians around the world as “an attack against the media.” Instead, she teaches the importance of using precise terms to characterize various forms of false or misleading information, such as “disinformation,” “propaganda,” “conspiracy,” “satire,” or “rumor.”

These days, she said, fake news — in the original, limited sense of websites that pretend to be news outlets to pass off bogus stories — is old news, as more sophisticated, politically motivated propagandists have moved on to techniques such as taking genuine images out of context to deceive people.

Perhaps the most efficient way to deceive a populace en masse in the social media era is not to try to convince them of falsehoods, but to discredit the media and sow doubt about the truth. For Putin, as for Trump, the concept of fake news has proven a potent tool for just that.