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January 27, 2018

Unbridled Pak social media places national pride, harmony at stake

Top Story

January 27, 2018

LAHORE: The adverse and far-reaching impact of propaganda, deliberate misinformation, rumours and hoaxes spread through the "unbridled and unharnessed" Pakistani social media can be gauged from the fact that the Punjab government had to request the State Bank of Pakistan to check and verify if the main accused in the Zainab rape-cum-murder case really owned innumerable bank accounts.

The afore-cited misinformation was then quoted, endorsed and aired by a couple of anti-government news channels, who were also hell-bent upon proving that Zainab's killer was not a lone operator, but the member of an international mafia dealing in child pornography.

Following the State Bank of Pakistan's report Friday that it was fake news, the rumours did die to a large extent but not before they had spread panic in the ranks of both public and the incumbent PML-N regime.

The fake news had just fallen short of labelling the small city of Kasur an international child pornography hub and one of the major sources of money-laundering through the "black web" or the "dark net," which exists on overlay networks that use the Internet but requires specific software, skill, configurations or authorization to access.

It goes without saying that this particular episode has also damaged the credibility of the traditional Pakistani print and broadcast news media, as a few thinking heads among the general public might opine that the mainstream national media outlets often take leads from social media and then concoct or fabricate stories to sell more.

This most recent case of deliberate misinformation on social media certainly provides a food for thought to those who argue that social media space should be completely free and left to the discretion of users.

These pro-social media quarters assert that users would rise up to counter offensive or fake material, or judge for themselves that these should be ignored. But what these so-called "advocates of free speech" do not understand or perhaps do not want to understand is the fact that targeted defamation and incitement to racist or religious violence, for example, could easily go viral on social media platforms.

And without swift actions by authorities, consequences to personal wellbeing and national security could be irreparable. Many people have already lost precious due to these social media hate campaigns.

The under review fake news regarding Zainab's killer having innumerable bank accounts within the country and abroad has undoubtedly put the national pride, respect, prestige and national harmony at stake.

Some regulation is thus necessary to strike the balance between advancing free speech and protecting public interests such as national security and social harmony – but the question that arises here is that how could it be done and who will do it in Pakistan where state's priorities are very different?

Going by the past bitter experiences, it can safely be assumed that it is quite likely that the men at the helm of affairs in Pakistan will now again go in a deep slumber, as they did in December 2016, when certain elements had maligned chief justice of Pakistan-designate Mian Saqib Nisar (current Chief Justice of Pakistan), President Mamnoon Hussain and the then Prime minister Nawaz Shartif on social media by uploading a fake picture that in fact showed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Iqbal Zafar Jhagra sitting and talking to the President and former Premier.

Some social media users deliberately wrote a misleading caption that the then CJP-designate Saqib Nisar was sitting with Nawaz Sharif and Mamnoon Hussain. The FIA Cyber crime wing had investigated the matter and in January 2017, a Rescue 1122 employee was arrested for this crime.

The then interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan was later quoted by mainstream media as saying: "We are in contact with Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media sites to expose the elements and their hidden motives for launching a negative campaign to damage credibility of the state institutions."

It may be recalled that in November 2016, the then Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali, had directed the concerned authorities to block a fake Facebook account operating by his name.

Supreme Court spokesman clarified that the CJP was not using any social media account. Justice Jamali had also instructed the Federal Investigation Agency and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to take action against those operating his fake account under relevant law.

It was on September 25, 2017 that the FIA lodged had its first case under the Cyber Law against a youth for blackmailing a girl and uploading her pictures on social media. In developed West, if the social media is guilty of completely false death rumors pertaining to Hollywood stars including the likes of Paris Hilton, Britner Spears and Sylvester Stallone etc, the Pakistani social media does not lag behind on this front either.

Recently, rumours had gone round on Pakistani social media that the houses of film artists Saba Qamar and Noor had been sealed in Lahore due to non-payment of taxes. However, Saba Qamar promptly took to social media to respond to the news to put all rumors to rest.

She had written: "Well, I’m not in trouble. Recently, the news about my house being sealed has been circulating so let me take this opportunity to clear all these rumors based on nothing but lies. My house has not been sealed, neither has my bank account. I’m a tax filer. It is very disappointing that channels are circulating such news without finding out the truth. These channels have no credibility as they have been spreading such rumors. Moreover, all these channels have been publicizing my home address without my permission and it is just disgusting how a person’s privacy can be disrespected like this. All I can understand at this moment is that one is not even safe in their own house. So, we should object to what’s wrong and not fall for anything and everything that comes on the news without knowing the truth. So my humble request is to live and let live!"

In India, fake news has led to episodes of violence between castes and religions and has clearly interfered with public policies. It often spreads through the Smartphone instant messenger Whatsapp, which had 200 million monthly active users in the country in 2017. (Reference: The Washington Post)

On November 8, 2016, India had established a Rs 2,000 currency bill on the same day as the demonetization of the Rs 500 and Rs 1000 bank notes had started. Fake news went viral over Whatsapp within hours that the new Rs 2,000 note came equipped with spying technology.

The government did refute the fallacy, but not before this 'news" had spread like fire in the jungle to the country's mainstream news outlets. (Reference: The Zee News) While various world governments and Social Media companies are still in the midst of a heated debate on how to regulate social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube etc, the sitting French President, Emmanuel Macron, had recently taken the leady in this context by announcing plans for legislation to stop fake news spreading online in the run-up to elections.

On January 3, 2018, the French media reported that details of the afore-mentioned bill would be released in the coming weeks but President Macron told journalists in a New Year address that measures to boost transparency would include an obligation for the media to reveal all sponsors of their content.

The law would enable French judges to order media to take down fake news, block access to offending websites, close social media accounts that spread untruths and even block offenders' internet access.

"We are going to develop our legal means of protecting democracy against fake news. Many thousand propaganda accounts on social networks" are spreading "all over the world, in all languages, lies invented to tarnish political officials, personalities, public figures and journalists," President Macron had said.

In 2017, German lawmakers had passed a law under which Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies could face fines of up to €50 million ($57 million) for failing to remove hate speech.

Under the law, social media companies would face steep fines for failing to remove "obviously illegal" content — including hate speech, defamation, and incitements to violence — within 24 hours. They would face an initial fine of €5 million, which could rise to €50 million. Web companies would have up to one week to decide on cases that are less clear cut.

Not long ago, US President Donald Trump had announced the winners of his self-proclaimed "Fake News" awards, with "The New York Times" topping the list.

On January 18, 2018, a prestigious British newspaper "The Independent" had reported: "But shortly after the US president tweeted a link to a website run by the Republican National Committee, his party’s political arm, it returned an error message, having apparently crashed. When it later returned, it revealed that Mr Trump has singled out New York Times columnist Paul Krugman for claiming Mr Trump’s presidency would inflict severe damage to the US economy, which has in fact rallied under his leadership. He also attacked Brian Ross, a reporter for ABC News, who erroneously reported that Mr Trump directed former national Security Adviser Michael Flynn to make contact with Russia during the election."

Remember, President Trump's frequent claims that the mainstream American media regularly reports fake news has increased distrust of the American media globally.

On December 31, 2017, another esteemed British newspaper "The Guardian," had stated: "More than half of British users of social media surveyed in a new poll have admitted that they fail to check the original source of online material before sharing or "liking" it. The survey, which sheds light on people’s susceptibility to manipulation by purveyors of "fake news", also finds that three in four Britons believe tech companies, such as Twitter and Facebook, and MPs, are not doing enough to counter the organized online spread of falsehoods by state actors such as Russia."

The media house had added: "The chair of a House of Commons inquiry last week warned Facebook and Twitter could face sanctions if they continue to stonewall parliament over Russian interference in the EU referendum. Damian Collins, chair of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee, which is looking into so-called fake news, has given the companies until 18 January to correct their failure to hand over data he requested about Russian misinformation campaigns on their platforms."

  The "Guardian" had gone on to write: "The poll of more than 2,000 UK adults found Russia was the country most likely to be regarded as a culprit when it came to online campaigns. Almost two thirds (64%) believe it is true that certain governments employ people to mislead the public online, sometimes through fake profiles on social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Of those people, 59% believed Russia was employing people to engage in such activities, followed by 41% who believed that the US government was doing so. The figure was 32% for China and 27% for the UK government."

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