A new kind of addiction

July 18, 2019

Through the centuries, through the decades, habits change and trends alter. This has always been the case and will undoubtedly always be. But perhaps at no time in history has technology directed a...

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Through the centuries, through the decades, habits change and trends alter. This has always been the case and will undoubtedly always be. But perhaps at no time in history has technology directed a change in habits and behaviours as swiftly as is happening now.

The early morning wait for the gentle thud of the newspaper falling on the doorstep or tossed over the gate has been replaced by a quick sweep through Facebook, Twitter and other social media – in many cases before turning even to the online edition of newspapers. It is simply one of those alterations in the way people act and interact that derives from the technology we now hold almost constantly on our person in this age of smartphones and the presence of WiFi in more and more places.

Today, 70 million Pakistanis or around 33 percent of the population uses the Internet, many of them on their phones. This is an extremely rapid growth from the 6.5 million who used it in 2006 – and the number will continue to increase with each year as technology moves closer and closer into our personal space, into our homes and begins increasingly to direct how we live, how we think and how we design our social behaviour.

Of course, social media has brought in a huge amount of information available to more people than ever. But how reliable is this information? Can we really trust it? Are people today better informed or more ignorant than say a generation or two ago? Some analysis is required to understand the forces which shape the space in which we live. The presence of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and other social media in our lives has also brought an influx of fake news. The case that emerged earlier this year of false images being posted of children allegedly fainting after receiving polio drops is of course just one case. The impact continues with more refusals than ever before reported last month from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Parents naturally are afraid when they hear about such stories, whether directly through the Internet or by word of mouth from others.

In a game of Chinese Whispers, rumours also tend to change, alter and take on a more sinister shape as they spread from one person to the next. There are many other examples of fake news. There are stories about politicians from around the world which may or may not be true. Sometimes the opinion of an entire nation is built around these stories and the belief that they are based on fact. As a result of habits built over decades, many people believe what they see in print or in written form as being accurate. They do not look further, they do not research, they often do not think.

This is the reason WhatsApp messages forwarded from one person to the next are so readily a cause of panic, when for example they suggest a certain ingredient almost certainly causes cancer or when there is a more dangerous scheme behind them such as suggestions that terrorists could strike soon at a specific location. Many parents for example believe that pink, strawberry-flavoured sweets containing crystal meth are indeed being handed out to children in schools. Even a cursory glance at myth-busting sites like snopes.com or HoaxSlayer points out there is no credibility in this and that the story has been circulating since early 2007. Even schools have been known to issue warning notices for parents warning them to watch out for the sellers of such sweets, even though they do not exist. Such misinformation is not only misleading, and one of the causes of growing paranoia in our society, but also potentially dangerous.

Much of the information put out over social media accidentally appears there because people copy and paste other messages or forward them from one group to the other. But in some cases, it is deliberately contrived. Advertisers and corporates, or those with other vested interests, have been known to hire experts who can produce ‘clickbait’, encouraging people to click on it, win them revenue and in some cases be inundated with information that encourages them to purchase a particular product to guide themselves again some mythical danger.

The old checks built into mainstream media through newsrooms, news editors and producers and other professionals have virtually disappeared. The business of news has been handed over to the public at large, and the public at large is essentially made up of a huge group of persons based all around the world, a very large number of them with interests of their own or perhaps a purposeful desire to create certain rumours. The thoughtlessness of people when they forward social media messages only aggravates

the situation.

The idea that in extreme temperatures, car fuel tanks filled to the top could burst has been proven incorrect by experiments which proved an empty or almost empty tank was indeed more likely to explode under certain circumstances. We need to encourage people to be a little more sceptical; to not believe all they read and to be wary of social media and its ability to mislead or create an entire web of misinformation. Currently, the manner in which social media is used means there is massive space for prank or more dangerous attempts at opinion shaping.

We know that today there are more and more people who readily confess that they open Facebook or Twitter each morning as the first thing they do, sometimes before even that cup of coffee or journey out of bed. The dependence is alarming. Particularly in a country like ours where conspiracy theories are easily believed and misguiding people is relatively easy, there are enormous possibilities for the misuse of cyberspace. This kind of misuse is not about the disturbing images of little girls in sexually provocative clothing posted even by their parents, about fascism, extremism or other such acts; it is about leading people to form opinions based on flawed knowledge and limited facts.

Of course the older fashioned media which as we can see all around us is quickly dying out, committed the same mistakes. There can be no doubt that published news was not always verified and that particular publications or news channels followed specific agenda. The agenda of news and the manner in which it is formed has been well documented and commented on extensively by experts.

The Glasgow Media Group, a group of researchers who originally combined forces in the 1970s at Glasgow University, have extensively written on and provided detailed examples of the bias inherent within television news even from channels such as the BBC which we consider reliable.

Others like Professor Philip Schlesinger, also from Glasgow, have written and researched cultural bias within news and the manner in which it is presented on TV. Noam Chomsky, the well-known American dissident, social activist and linguist, began by focusing on language bias and went on to write extensively on what determines how news was projected before the mass public.

So, when dealing with mainstream news, we have a wealth of expertise to depend on in analysing it. For social media, we have none or almost none. In time we hope this will develop and work is indeed already in progress. But in the meantime, as our world and the technology which drives it continues to change it, we all need to be wary and more aware of how we are being influenced and who these influencers may be.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: kamilahyathotmail.com

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