“As with the term ‘terrorist,’ it has basically become an insult used to smear and discredit opponents,” he added.
Still, “the proliferation of deliberately falsified information online is a widely recognized problem,” even as efforts to counter it can be abused, Mr. Shahbaz said. Already this year, at least five countries have passed laws regulating fake news online, he added.
These governments have taken different approaches. In May, Kenya banned information that is “calculated or results in panic, chaos or violence,” or that is “likely to discredit the reputation of a person.” Malaysia, like Russia, chose a different tact, targeting false information regardless of its consequences. In April, Malaysia’s lower house of Parliament passed a bill outlawing fake news, the first measure of its kind in the world. France is weighing its own measure.
Russian lawmakers have also noticed these initiatives — some meant to counter Russian-made fake news — and have co-opted their language and arguments. Marina A. Mukabenova, deputy chairwoman of a Parliament committee on information policy, told the daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta that fake news sparked “heated discussion” and divided Russian society.
In contrast with debates on fake news in the United States and Europe, Russian lawmakers seem most focused on domestic dissent, rather than foreign meddling. For example, the bill’s co-sponsor, Sergei M. Boyarsky, pointed to what he suggested was a clear-cut case of damaging online information: a flurry of posts that exaggerated the death toll of a mall fire in Siberia.
“The tragedy in Kemerovo showed how vulnerable our information space within social networks is to the falsification of information,” he told the news agency Tass.
And yet, in the fire’s aftermath, relatives of victims accused the authorities of hiding the true death toll, writing social media posts that helped spur protests and calls for local officials to resign. True or not, the fatality figures posted online became central to a national debate in one of the first domestic crises of Mr. Putin’s fourth presidential term. The proposed law, though, would have squelched this debate.
Activists are skeptical that the authorities have Russians’ best interests at heart. The language of public safety often conceals efforts at censorship, said Artem Kozlyuk, the founder of Roskomsvoboda, an anti-censorship website. The end result, he said, is always “expansion of the government’s powers and censorship.”