Mimicking Trump, Russia dismisses atrocities in Syria as 'fake news'


Borrowing Trump's despotic language, Russia invoked the term 'fake news' to discredit reports about the chemical attacks in Syria.

Taking a cue from Trump, the Russian government on Sunday dismissed reports of a deadly chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma, referring to the reporting as "fake news" and accusing rebel groups of fabricating the story.

According to the International Rescue Committee, more than 70 people were reportedly killed Saturday when Syrian forces dropped barrel bombs filled with toxic gas over the rebel-held city of Douma. An additional 500 people — mostly women and children — were injured in the chemical attack.

This marks the eighth chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians since Trump took office.

Just as we've seen in each previous attack, the Russian government, which supports the Syrian regime, was quick to dismiss reports that Syrian forces were to blame — and thanks to Trump, Russia had a script to follow.

Borrowing Trump's despotic language about the press, Russia invoked the term "fake news" to discredit reports about the atrocity and foster distrust of the news media in an effort to delegitimize future reporting.

"Fake news on the use of chlorine or other chemical agents by the government forces continue," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "Another piece of such fabricated information on the alleged chemical attack in Douma emerged yesterday."

The Russian government also referred to the attack as a "hoax" that was "fabricated" to justify Western intervention in Syria.

Online, Russian media outlets like RT and Sputnik have been busy pushing propaganda to discredit news reports about the chemical attacks.

Russian-linked networks on social media have also joined in the effort, pushing out "alternative facts" to spin the narrative. On Sunday, topics and hashtags related to the chemical attacks dominated the activity on Securing Democracy's Hamilton 68 Dashboard, which tracks 600 Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations.

Syria Chemical Attacks Russian Propaganda Hamilton 68 Dashboard
Screenshot/Hamilton 68 Dashboard

This is just the latest example of how Trump's use of the term "fake news" has been used by repressive regimes around the world to undermine the free press, reject evidence of human rights abuses, and stoke cynicism about the objectivity of news media.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and other Syrian government officials have repeatedly borrowed the term, using it to dismiss evidence that the government summarily executed prisoners and murdered civilians with chemical weapons.

“You can forge anything these days. We’re living in a fake-news era," the Syrian dictator said in February, referencing an Amnesty International report that up to 13,000 prisoners had been executed in one of his military prisons.

In December, Politico identified 15 instances in which autocratic leaders or state media have used the term "fake news" to dismiss questions about human rights violations.

"By aligning themselves with Trump’s words, despots have been able to use the U.S. president as a shield for their attacks on press freedom and human rights," Politico reported.

There is clear evidence that the use of the term "fake news" to dismiss allegations of widespread human rights atrocities has picked up since Trump took office. Politifact found more than a dozen such instances since Trump took office — and none before then.

Despots use information (and disinformation) as a weapon, and Trump's anti-press rhetoric has armed dictators around the world, emboldening them to carry out atrocities — and giving them a roadmap to get away with it.