Fake news might be US President Donald Trump’s favourite trump. However, it predates him and spans across international borders. In Pakistan, the consequences of fake news are very real and more dangerous due to a lack of education and systems of verification.
In our country, fake news is churned out from sources that are both obvious and discreet. Pakistan’s democracy and its nascent free media have not had the opportunity to mature in little over a decade. With several dozen channels operating round the clock every single day, the competition for ratings has fuelled the fake news machine. And with the decline of paper-based news and the rise of online sources and trendy blogs, the matter has only become worse. Apart from a couple of reputable newspapers and television channels, most are simply tabloids and prime examples of yellow journalism.
Unfortunately, politicians and media houses have intentionally misused fake news in an attempt to spin the political narrative in their favour. Instead of being a source of information for the public, many media houses have become propaganda tools of various political elements.
Then, of course, there is the third force: the non-political forces that work from behind the curtains to shape the political narrative. Some blue-eyed channels of these non-political actors seem to even get away with international scandals.
Sadly, the Pakistani nation is more vulnerable to fake news and sensationalism due to a lack of education. In other countries, including in our neighbouring India, the people prefer to watch movies or drama serials. But in Pakistan, politics is the main source of entertainment for the people. With no other kind of entertainment available, Pakistani citizens react instantaneously to every news ticker. Television channels compete fiercely to beat one another in an attempt to be the first to break a news, resulting in information being spread without due verification. Arguably, some smaller media outlets knowingly disseminate distorted facts because for them whatever sells is crucial for survival.
The most recent example was the horrific incident in Kasur. The tragic rape and murder of Zainab caught the hearts and minds of not only Pakistanis but the entire world owing to the images circulated on social media. This media frenzy and the widespread protests mounted pressure on the government and led to a frantic chase to capture the suspect. But in the process, the fake news regarding the involvement of Kasur’s DPO spread far and wide. This rumour was put to rest after the real suspect, Imran Ali, was caught.
However, the quest for TV ratings and commercialisation did not end there. One TV anchor desperately tried to become relevant by claiming that an international child pornography ring supported by a PML-N minister was involved and that the suspect arrested had several bank accounts to his name – with at least one other journalist claiming that he had up to 166 bank accounts. And now, when their supposed evidence is refuted, they are stubbornly stand by their narrative.
PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was recently a panellist in a discussion held at the WEF in Davos, about the threats posed by fake news to democracy. Similar efforts must be made within Pakistan. The people need to be made aware of the importance of verifying information. At the same time, there needs to be an active effort to identify and penalise the sources of fake news. A free media is a blessing for democracy in Pakistan, as long as it stays clear of fake news.
The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat. He tweets nadirgabol