Today
Sun 5 December 2021

Increasingly, right-wing and authoritarian governments are taking action to stop the spread of disinformation – while using fake news themselves to sow distrust and entrench power

“That’s complete fake news,” the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said to Sky News’ Kay Burley, after the presenter asked her whether the Government “agreed to take out any specific mentions” of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.  

It was, in fact, reported in September that the UK “cut climate pledges to clinch Australia trade deal”. An email leaked to Sky News involved Truss, who was then Trade Secretary, and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, agreeing to ditch references to the targets of the Paris Agreement on climate change to sweeten the Australian trade deal.

This is not the first or last time an MP has unfairly accused the media of misinforming its audience about its decisions. In the aftermath of the Parliamentary vote on former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson’s suspension, Andrea Leadsom accused the media of “misrepresenting” the debate, before the Government swiftly performed a u-turn. 

Since the term “fake news” was first bellowed by President Donald Trump at US journalists, it has become increasingly used by political leaders keen to escape scrutiny of their actions. 

Now the Greek Government, led by right-wing New Democracy Party, has proposed an amendment to the criminal code which would impose fines on and even jail journalists guilty of disseminating “false news”. The law claims to be aimed at tackling disinformation. But critics are worried this is an attack on press freedom from an increasingly authoritarian leadership.

In an open letter, the International Press Institute has stated the Greek Government “must withdraw its amendment” on false news, as “the draft law’s vague definition and punitive sanctions would undermine the freedom of the press and have a chilling effect at a time when independent journalism is already under pressure in Greece.”

While acknowledging the dangers of disinformation, the letter’s authors fear “the passing of heavy-handed legislation by governments which grants regulators or prosecutors the power to decide true from false and levy punitive fines on the press is not the correct response and would result in more harm than good.”

The Institute raises the alarm over the amendment’s vague wording which fails to define “false news”, before explaining how “particularly problematic is the sanctioning of reports ‘capable of causing concern’ or which ‘undermines public confidence’ in state authorities. Journalism which holds power to account naturally shakes the public’s trust in government, just as investigative reporting causes legitimate public concern or anger. Under such a vaguely worded law, this kind of vital watchdog journalism could be targeted by political leaders intent on limiting criticism of their policies.

Greek journalist union ESIEA has added its voice in opposition to the proposed amendment, writing “there is a danger that Justice will intervene and restrict the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression of opinions about what is happening around us.”

The move follows attempts in Romania and Bulgaria to tackle misinformation during the pandemic – attempts that were shut down after criticism from the European Union. Hungary, however, succeeded in criminalising the spread of misinformation deemed to undermine the authorities’ fight against the Coronavirus with fines and prison sentences.

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Politicians and Accusations of Fake News

While there is no doubt that disinformation is rife online, the term “fake news” is increasingly used by politicians around the world to undermine investigative reporting and potentially embarrassing revelations. 

Earlier this year, the editor of the Yorkshire Post, James Mitchinson, accused UK MPs of “taking a leaf out of Donald Trump’s Fake News playbook” after his paper published a story about vaccines being diverted to regions where fewer people had accessed the jab.

“Never in my career as a journalist have I come under such a coordinated attack from those in power,” Mitchinson wrote. “They [UK MPs] wanted you to believe them, not us. The experience has left me with a deep sense of unease.”

Back in 2018, when he was Housing Minister, Dominic Raab accused Inside Housing of “peddling fake news” after it reported he hadn’t attended a Housing Taskforce. Raab explained he was needed in Parliament to respond to an urgent question, while Inside Housing said “it was not inaccurate to report that Raab did not attend the meeting, nor was it improper to simply pose the question why in our morning news round-up.”

The backbench MP Andrew Bridgen called reporting on Cambridge Analytica “fake news”, while leading Brexiteer Arron Banks has called Channel 4 News responsible for “fake news” after it exposed how Leave.EU faked a viral video of ‘migrants.’  

Outside of the UK, the term was most commonly used by Trump to rile up his base against the mainstream media, attacking CNN and Buzzfeed as “fake news”. Authoritarian Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro has also attacked critical media by claiming he is “at war with fake news”. In Australia, conservative politicians such as Malcolm Turnball have accused media outlets of publishing “fake news” to satisfy what the right believes to be “leftist agendas”. In Europe, Hungarian Government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs said the organisation Reporters Without Borders should be renamed “Fake News Without Borders,” while Orbán in 2018 told reporters “I won’t answer to fake news factories.”

Other Conservative attacks on journalism include Jacob Rees-Mogg calling the Huffington Post deputy political editor of being “either a knave or a fool”; Matt Hancock referring to The Guardian as a “rag”; and Kemi Badenoch saying that Nadine White’s emails requesting comment on a story were “creepy and bizarre.”

It may not have used the inflammatory term “fake news”, but the Cabinet Office dismissed a Mail on Sunday report on a probe into foreign collusion in Downing Street, saying there was “never such an investigation”. The Mail on Sunday stands by its story. Meanwhile, then Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove accused openDemocracy’s reporting into freedom of information of being “ridiculous and tendentious.” 

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) safety survey, published in November, showed 98% of respondents believed politicians should avoid dismissing journalistic work as fake news as they have a leading role to play in maintaining high standards of public discourse.


The Real Purveyors of Fake News?

Right-wing governments like New Democracy in Greece threaten to jail journalists for writing “false news”, and Conservative Cabinet ministers accuse news anchors of repeating “fake news”. But often the sources of disinformation come from politicians themselves. 

In fact, it’s often those crying “fake news” at journalists who are most reliant on disinformation to maintain their grip on power. 

In December 2020, the Labour Party asked for an inquiry into a newsletter sent by Wellingborough Conservatives that urged members to “weaponise fake news” and “make enough dubious claims” to ensure “honest speakers are overwhelmed” and “crowd out” the truth.

One year earlier, and the Conservative Party faced criticism for renaming its Twitter account to make it look like a fact-checking service during a leaders’ debate in the run-up to the 2019 election.

The newly-appointed Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary of State, Nadine Dorries, has also been under fire for spreading fake news after she shared a doctored video featuring Labour leader Keir Starmer. Dorries was told to check the validity before sharing future social media content. Lucy Allan and Maria Caulfield also shared the clip. 

In Europe, despite outlawing disinformation on the Coronavirus, press outlets loyal to Orbán have been accused of becoming factories of fake news, with disinformation cited as a “tactic” in the Prime Minister’s armoury. 

Bolsonaro may have railed against the “fake news media”, but has been accused of spreading misinformation in a systematic manner as a central part of his strategy in achieving power. Similarly, Trump and his supporters flooded the infosphere with fake memes, stories and disinformation to inspire his base – the greatest, of course, being the lie that he had won the election. This lie cost people’s lives and threatened to overturn democracy, during the 6 January 2021 attempted insurrection. 

A CNBC analysis of President Trump’s tweets since January 2017 found that his most popular and frequent posts largely spread disinformation and distrust.

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