Sunday October 01, 2023

Pakistan, we have a problem

December 28, 2022

Imagine a situation where texts do not have to go through any kind of scrutiny and where all sorts of conspiracy theories can reach people within minutes. We have, unfortunately, arrived at our dystopian destination – thanks to social networking sites. I am certain that people working on this communication system could not have imagined that the technology would someday become a beacon of misinformation.

Pakistan has always had a problem of misinformation, but it was during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic that the issue became more pronounced. From ministers’ half-baked theories about the virus and the discovery of the unproven benefits of the sana makki herb to videos showing how the vaccines were a cover to insert chips inside humans, we did not leave any opportunity to prove how we are a bunch of highly educated, stupid people.

And while such examples are both shocking and humorous, they only garner a few eye-rolls and face-palms. But there have been certain cases where misinformation – and its deliberate spread – resulted in dangerous consequences including attacks on federal ministers. Last year (2021), right after the Aurat March, people on social media started sharing videos from the event, with fabricated subtitles that ended up putting the lives of the organizers in danger. These videos were widely shared on Twitter and Facebook – even retweeted by some well-known journalists.

We saw a similar campaign a few months ago regarding the Transgender Person Act 2018. A JI senator claimed that many people were using the law to get their gender changed. His tweet created a storm on social media, with everyone jumping on the bandwagon to proudly display their hate against the marginalized community. The level of misinformation was so intense that some members of the khawajasira community held a protest to condemn the act. And while everything the transgender community had been saying was neglected, the protest got quite an audience on social media. On Facebook alone, it got around 400,000 views within a couple of months.

Social media heavily relies on algorithms to improve user experience. And this specific tool is quite lethal when it comes to amplifying fake news and misinformation. Social media sites carefully analyze users’ history and bring up posts on their timelines which they think users may like. People more prone to believing in conspiracy theories and news stories with no credible sources are more likely to find similar articles on their timelines.

And since there is no one in such an echo chamber to challenge their beliefs, they cannot help but consume information that is compatible with their beliefs. The problem gets more intensified when such tactics are skilfully used by political parties to get more people on their side. In 2018, a photo from the JFK airport was circulated on social media with the caption that the then prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, had to go through a strict body check. And even though it was proved that the photo was not Abbasi’s, it was used by several troll accounts for political point scoring.

Pakistanis on Twitter know well about a star PTI supporter, who slipped into oblivion soon after the PTI rose to power. The young impassioned man is famous for creating fake accounts of known Pakistani personalities, including that of Dr AQ Khan. He appeared in an Al Jazeera documentary released in 2020. In the documentary, his wife shares in glee how her fake tweets were picked up by Indian news media and adds “if you repeat a lie over and over again, people start believing it to be the truth.”

But what do people get out of these fake trends and misinformation? Not only are such trends a great political strategy, they also provide a lucrative business model to many people interested in making quick bucks. For social media companies, a high engagement rate is crucial for their growth. For businesses, more money through clicks, likes, and other impressions is the main objective.

Six years ago, the world witnessed the rise of Donald Trump to power in shock. Many political observers refused to believe that Trump could become the most powerful man of the world – now that we have seen many Trump-like personalities all around us, it’s not that hard to believe this. And so began the search for the truth. From Russian bots to the role of Facebook, everything was analyzed to make sense of the election upset. Of course, people were not willing to believe that all strategies used to create the Obama brand could be used to make the MAGA slogan a reality.

But the research did uncover some interesting aspects of the economy of misinformation. A small Macedonian city turned out to be home to over a hundred pro-Trump websites. For people working from there, sensational and fake blog posts were the quickest way to make money through automated advertising engines. Over the years, the keyword ‘Trump’ became more valuable, making people ample amounts of profits.

When such profit-making strategies start penetrating platforms, it gets hard to fight against the deadly consequences so created. Some political leaders rely on the propaganda machine to keep their support base intact. And one trick they use is to discredit credible organizations that can identify between the real and fake. Political parties –especially the PTI – have used this trick with much success, particularly against media houses. Such statements are mostly political – and don’t end up in the courts. But they do build a biased approach among people making them not pay attention to any information – regardless of how genuine it is – that goes against their beliefs.

Pakistanis are trapped in this vicious cycle of misinformation and fake news, and there is no escape from it any time soon. While we happily pray for an increase in our knowledge, little attention is paid to the source of information and whether it is beneficial. We continue to live a life of ignorance.

The writer is an assistant editor at The News. She tweets @manie_sid and can be reached at: