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Sunday May 19, 2024

Fact, fiction, and some truth

This is especially true for young people in Pakistan, a large variety of phones are available to a majority of population

By Kamila Hyat
January 25, 2024
This image shows a number of social media platforms on a phone screen. — X/@AFP
This image shows a number of social media platforms on a phone screen. — X/@AFP

Today we have entered a new age where it is difficult to distinguish between truth, fiction and propaganda. Social media has become the main source of information for a vast number of people around the world, including those in Pakistan.

This is especially true for young people. In Pakistan, a large variety of phones are available to a majority of the population. While this should normally be considered good news, the fact is that only a small number of people can distinguish fact from fiction on social media mobile applications. In some cases, no one can, and social media is full of false and fake news of every kind.

Although we know that social media is full of misleading information, the reality is we cannot always tell what is true and what is false. There are various techniques which can help deal with this matter, and some people are simply better at identifying fake news and doctored videos compared to others. Doctored videos are extremely easy to publish in this age when technology lies at one’s fingertips. This is also an age where artificial intelligence has made it possible to make use of social media and technology both good and bad.

The reality is that social media is dominated by fake news. The controls which exist in the regular newsroom – in print or electronic media – vanish for social media. There are no editors, or other staff members who can filter the content posted on a social media page. So, the result is that virtually anyone can create a YouTube channel and put out whatever content they determine is good and useful to them or to others in some way. We should then be extremely careful when using social media and determining what real news is. There are so many ‘anchors’ on social media who put out only propaganda or deliberately falsified sensational news of various kinds.

There are also other hoaxes. We get unverified and incorrect news about medical matters, social issues or crimes. The outcry which occurred a few years ago over a falsified video regarding the polio campaign in the country and the allegation that children had been badly affected in terms of health by the vaccine is just one example. There are many others. The news circulated not only over the internet but also through WhatsApp and other channels through which we receive our information. There are only a small number of discerning people who recognize the need to fact-check vigorously and visit sites like Snopes.com to check news regarding drugs, medicine or other global sensations.

At the same time, social media has advantages. Without it, we would not have known about the protests against price hikes in Gilgit-Baltistan where people have been sitting in icy weather to stage a sit-in against the rising cost of living for days now. There are also other protests taking place across the country which should be on the agenda of mainstream news, but they do not make this cut. This shows that social media does serve useful purposes but only if used with good sense and an ability to recognize that not everything put out on the screen is real. Much of it is indeed fiction and deliberate distortion.

To add to the problem, we have a situation where the PTA is used to disrupt the internet to cut out news or affairs of parties that they do not wish people to see and hear. This has led to a ridiculous situation. The internet is closed off for all users including those involved in business or education, making it impossible to proceed with the normal rhythm of a working day. The attempt to shut down social media is nearly impossible in any case. There are too many proxies and other ways to disguise what people are watching.

It will be far wiser to use national resources to educate people about how to distinguish between facts and deliberate lies put out over all the channels that have now become a part of daily life.

The reality however is that this is not likely to happen. In some cases, distortion suits those in power and we are all accustomed to this reality. But we must also realize that in the current digital age, social media is here to stay and grow. Artificial intelligence, already making itself known in so many forms, will further impede the ability to distinguish between fake news and correct and verified information. The situation is a dangerous one in many ways but attempts to limit access to social media are not a way to deal with the situation. It would be far wiser to allow content to go out and educate people about how to tell the difference between content that is created within a studio and content that depicts reality.

Fake news is a reality. There is an urgent need to inform people about multiple sites that can help them determine the authenticity of any news. In a country, where the literacy rate is still barely 50 per cent, this is a difficult task. People simply believe what they see on the screen and believe what is passed on to them. They do not realize how many YouTube channels run by various persons upload fake news. Sometimes, the mainstream media source its news from YouTube channels, resulting in a wider spread of fake news.

Sensibly many major news channels in the country have established fact-checking setups that can filter news and determine the truth, but many others have not done so and rely on the sensationalism of fake news to attract audiences. This is dangerous. It is especially dangerous at a time when an election, which some still doubt will take place, is just weeks away. We need to find a mechanism that can allow people to determine if what they are watching is genuine. This of course is not an easy task.

It is however an essential one. As AI and social media grow, people must learn to use tools and other checks that can differentiate real news from false information. This is important in many ways. More and more political parties, as well as other groups, are turning to social media to publish their content. We also have multiple platforms run by various people to publish news. In this age, people must educate themselves about such channels and determine what is true and what is simply fake information delivered to them for a particular purpose or a particular aim.


The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor. She can be reached at: kamilahyat@hotmail.com