Trump and Assad's fascist manual: 101 - fake news

Trump and Assad's fascist manual: 101 - fake news
Comment: Trump and Assad branding critical reporting as "fake news," manufactures skepticism and blurs the line between their propaganda and real journalism, writes Yousef Khalil.
6 min read
15 Feb, 2017
During the interview, Assad accused Amnesty of 'fake news' reports on atrocities in Syria [Yahoo]
The spread of "fake news," - fabricated news stories or hyper-partisan blogs passing off irredeemably biased analysis as legitimate journalism, has been the subject of much discussion in the past few months. Much of this debate has occurred in relation to the shock electoral victory of Donald Trump, himself no stranger to fabrication.

According to an analysis conducted by Buzzfeed, there was a significant increase in the circulation of fake news during the last three months of the election, leading to speculation about the effect of such stories on voters.

The most widely shared fake news stories generated more engagements on Facebook than the most widely shared legitimate news stories, according to the analysis.

These fake news stories included such wild headlines as "Wikileaks Confirms Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS," which was shared more than 800,000 times on Facebook. Fake news stories that appealed to the political Right were more widely shared; 17 of the top 20 fake news stories were pro-Trump.

While the Left is certainly not immune to this phenomenon, psychologists studying fake news have found that conservatives are more susceptible to its world-view reinforcing appeal.

There is however, a significant difference between the phenomenon of fake news - which is a result of the perverse incentive structure of the online news economy which rewards attention-grabbing headlines more than well-thought out and researched journalism - and Trump's discourse of fake news.

The most widely shared fake news stories generated more engagements on Facebook than the most widely shared legitimate news stories, said Buzzfeed's analysis

The president uses the term to discredit his critics in the media and, probably, soothe the massive dissonance that rings out when his ideas clash with those of the real world. Trump famously shouted-down a CNN reporter with the claim in a press conference, and also tweeted that, "Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election."

Although the spectacle of politicians delegitimising the press is nothing new to those who follow the politics of the Arab world, it is still interesting that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who has dismissed any coverage of his various war crimes as "western propaganda" since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, actually used the term in an interview.

"We are living in a fake news era," he said, in response to a question about the Amnesty International report on mass extrajudicial executions taking place at Syria's infamous Saydnaya prison.

Again, that dictators and authoritarian leaders would accuse critical journalists or organisations of lying or carrying out a nefarious agenda - as Assad is clearly doing by invoking fake news in response to a report by a well-respected humanitarian organisation - is not surprising.

Every Arab leader faced with a popular uprising since 2011, without fail, accused "satellite news channels" - a thinly veiled a reference to Al Jazeera - or the western media, of inciting unrest in their countries. Of course, everyone should be aware of the institutional biases of news outlets, but the central thesis of the fake news discourse of Trump and Assad, is that this bias completely undermines the factual basis of the stories these outlets are covering.

The discourse of fake news has been a central tenet of the Syrian regime's propaganda

As the politics of the Arab world have changed beyond recognition in the past six years, the media landscape in the region has also become more polarised. Syria's civil war has exacerbated this dynamic for several reasons:

Violence and lawlessness have made it difficult for journalists to operate in Syria, advances in mobile technology and the ubiquity of social networking have facilitated the rise of the citizen journalist.

Read more: Amnesty: Syrian regime hanged 13,000 in notorious prison

In addition, the shifting alliances and complexity of the actual political situation on the ground in Syria has facilitated the expansion of the conspiracy theories and shoddy analyses that form the backbone of any successful fake news story. 

Though Assad first used the term earlier this week, the discourse of fake news has been a central tenet of the Syrian regime's propaganda. The regime's online supporters claim that the western and Arab media are not to be trusted at all - that they are not just flipping the narrative, but are fabricating events.

While its supporters hail the anti-imperialist credentials of Assad's murderous government, they have unwittingly internalised the discourse of the "War on Terror" - that the only alternative to the authoritarian and dictatorial regimes in the Arab world is fanatical Islamism, so the former should be supported.

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This is an old tactic. Muammar Gaddafi made the same argument in 2011, claiming that the uprising against him was being orchestrated by Al-Qaeda (and that protestors were on hallucinogenic drugs).

The difference is, that unlike the regimes and strongmen that have been relegated to the dustbin since 2011, the Assad regime has actually steered events to play into this narrative. At the outset of the revolution, the regime released extremist prisoners in order to discredit the uprising, and targeted the viable opposition with airstrikes supposedly intended for so-called Islamic State.

Supporters of Assad's regime in the West have also stuck to the line that any reportage coming from western sources is to be discredited, because they themselves seem to have internalised the discourse of the "War on Terror". That the western media is critical of Assad means - in the eyes of these Assadists - that they are by default supporting Al-Qaeda.

Read more: Syria's chemical weapons: A short history of denial

Although Al-Qaeda declared itself a united international organisation in 1988, Richard Seymour reminds us that the Pentagon used the term in 2002 to describe the disparate groups of jihadists it wanted to target in the Middle East after 9/11.

And just as IS has done with Trump's Muslim Ban, radical Islamists use the reactions of western powers to reinforce their central argument that the West is irredeemably hostile to Muslims. The worldwide war against Al-Qaeda helped create a powerful brand under which those disparate jihadists could unify.

Indeed, it is more of a brand than an actual group with a command structure, so using it to describe Islamist forces operating in Syria is nothing more than a cheap rhetorical tactic. It is only slightly more descriptive than the now meaningless designation of "terrorist," which the regime and its supporters use to describe the entirety of the opposition. 

For Trump and Assad alike therefore, the very real phenomena of fake news is the material from which to manufacture a Cartesian skepticism about the media as a whole, creating a discursive space for their supporters in which no critiques against them deserve to be entertained.

Yousef Khalil is a New York-based writer and recent graduate of The New School's Graduate Program in International Affairs interested in the Arab Spring and Palestine.

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefTAK

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab