People’s Daily, the largest official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, tweeted out to its nearly 3 million followers a story yesterday decrying reports of a lawyer being tortured as “FAKE NEWS.”
Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer, was detained by the Chinese government in July 2015 on charges of subversion and other crimes against the state during a round-up of activists and other dissidents, and earlier this year his attorneys released transcripts of their conversations with him, where he detailed the torture he was subject to. As The Guardian noted in its article, Xie’s claims were “impossible to verify” but also “consistent with previously documented forms of abuse in China.” There’s little reason for readers to doubt Xie’s claims. His only right, he said his jailers told him, was to “obey the law.”
For the Chinese Communist party, it’s not enough that their grip on the country prevents many claims of human rights violations from being independently verified. Via People’s Daily they’ve floated an unsubstantiated claim that an “independent investigation team” set up by the government has “concluded that the allegations are fake.” Undoubtedly, readers of People’s Daily amenable to their propaganda may believe them.
The Chinese Communist Party’s use of the term “FAKE NEWS,” in the same all-caps style preferred by the president of the United States in his own tweets, provides some useful clarity on the primary purpose of the phrase. “Fake news” was first used in the mainstream media to describe stories those journalists felt were inaccurate or wholly made up that, some journalists and Democrats argued, swung the election to Trump. Fake news included stories of Clinton’s health (which was not an issue until it was).
From the beginning the charge of “fake news” was a distraction, a complaint not about the fakeness of the news but the unfettered freedom involved in reporting it. The U.S. never required a license to practice journalism—after all, that was how the British were able to control much of the flow of information in the 13 colonies—while new media technologies have lowered the value of or even made obsolete many of the media gatekeepers of old. In October, President Obama complained about the “wild west” media landscape, as if that were a bad thing, as if the relatively free flow of information was not part and parcel of American culture. The use of the term “fake news” assumed that this free flow was a problem. It was never precisely defined. Did fake news mean a story like the one about President Obama wanting to use weaponized AI to stay in office, or did fake news refer to stories not framed the way some people preferred, like, say, calling the Obama administration’s secret cash payment to Iran a ransom or a “tribute”?
In retrospect, it should have come as no surprise that President Trump, against whose supporters “fake news” was first deployed, would be able to use the term to great effect himself. After all, most people don’t consider themselves to be fake news consumers (except insofar as you consume stories like the one about weaponized AI ironically and with full awareness of their fake nature). Instead, they tend to believe that stories that don’t fit their worldview are the fake news. For politicians, the term is an effective catch-all for stories that are critical of them, something Fox CEO James Murdoch pointed out recently. Such a use is not so much a “co-option” of the term as a natural evolution. It’s use now by the Chinese state media should be the least surprising development in the fake news saga, as well as a warning of the authoritarian direction our leaders have been going, particularly vis a vis free speech, for some time now.