Last week, Russia passed a law making it a serious crime to publish what it considers "fake" news about the country's military. Offenders face 15 years in prison.
And what exactly is "fake" news? It depends on the Russian authorities. It will reportedly include any reference to the Russian invasion of Ukraine that calls it an invasion, which would contradict the Kremlin's insistence that it is simply a "special military operation". The Kremlin 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 the truth is the logical end point of a years-long change of course for the term "fake news". The concept is popular first made in the United States by well-meaning disinformation researchers to describe fake websites that posed as news outlets to intentionally spread fabricated information. But it wasn't long before it was turned against the media themselves, most notably by the latest president, Donald Trump.
The rhetorical move implemented by the now former US president of Trump has been taken as a reference by other world political leaders. In particular, but not exclusively, those with a populist or authoritarian bent. Numerous states in recent years, from Singapore to Hungary to Vietnam, have passed laws against fake news.
Russia had already passed fake news laws in 2019, inflicting fines and prison sentences of up to 15 days for "unreliable" information that disrespected state authorities.
The latest Russian law goes much further, with prison terms of up to 15 years. Media who were prepared to navigate the threat of censorship and wrist slapping under previous laws have understandably hesitated at the prospect of their employees and reporters spending much of their life in prison.
Just last week, news outlets from the BBC to the New York Times to Bloomberg News and tech platforms like Netflix and TikTok have suspended or downsized their operations in Russia, contributing to a wasteland of truth in the name of "fake news". 'it is doubtful that it was part of the Kremlin's intentions.
Perhaps the most effective way to deceive a mass population in the age of social media is not to try to convince them of falsehoods, but to discredit the media and sow doubts about the truth. For Putin, as for Trump, the concept of fake news has proved to be a powerful tool for precisely this.
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