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February 7, 2018

Falling for fake news


February 7, 2018

One of the most alarming repercussions of our blind trust in the information disseminated via various social media networks (particularly Facebook) is that this data usually lacks authenticity.

In numerous cases, there is hardly any solid evidence or a true source that can be used to verify information. Nevertheless, people tend to share and disseminate this information without bothering to check its reliability. In some cases, the spread of such unverified information can have devastating consequences for people and state institutions as elements with vested interests tend to exploit such information as a means of spreading propaganda against their opponents.

The inhuman and brutal murder of Mashal Khan, a student at the state-run Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan, serves as a useful example of this trend. Mashal was killed on the university’s premises by none other than his own classmates and university colleagues on April 13 last year over false allegations that he had posted blasphemous content online. Police investigation has revealed that no concrete evidence has been found against him.

In such cases, the more unfortunate aspect is that even the educated elite and the so-called ‘cream’ of society have blindly accepted such information without doing their own research to verify it. While there have been numerous instances where fake news has been disseminated, two examples of false information that has been circulated on social media in Pakistan are worth mentioning.

Various columnists played a part in pedalling misinformation in the first instance. As per these details, Pakistan was a prosperous and self-sufficient country that gave aid and loans to Germany in the 1960s. When former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was visiting Germany in 2014, several television channels also reported this particular historical ‘truth’.

For example, an English daily wrote on November 11, 2014: “Currently on a tour to Germany, Premier Nawaz Sharif should be walking in Berlin with his head high because 51 years ago in 1963, the Ayub Khan-led government dished out [a] Rs120 million loan to this largest European economy of today for a period of 20 years, some decades-old Ministry of Finance documents reveal”.

The same news, though it is entirely false, is frequently circulated on social media and results in a comparison between Germany and Pakistan of the 1960s. The former is shown as a war-ravaged country while the latter is depicted as a strong economy that was on the path of development and prosperity. I was informed by my colleagues and students about a video circulating on Facebook which suggested that Pakistan had provided loans to a war-tattered Germany in the 1960s. As someone with an interest in issues related to international aid and development, I have found no valid source for this information.

On the contrary, it was West Germany that provided loans and aid to Pakistan during the 1960s. A news report published in The Chicago Tribune in 1964 and a book titled ‘Foreign Aid and Industrial Development in Pakistan’ (published in 1972) by Irving Brecher and S A Abbas corroborates this claim.

The book states that: “The highly successful reconstruction of the West German economy provided the Federal Republic with the means to embark on aid diplomacy [programme]” (p.70). It also mentions that following the inception of the foreign aid programme, Germany soon became the third largest provider of international development cooperation after the US and France. The book also provides some details of German aid to Pakistan during this period.

If these sources are to be believed, it was West Germany that disbursed aid to Pakistan and not the other way round. Germany has been an important development partner of Pakistan for many decades now. Starting in 1961, Germany has financed development projects worth over EUR 2.5 billion in Pakistan. As per Pakistan’s priority areas, Germany has funded interventions in key sectors including sustainable economic development (education, health and vocational training); good governance (improving tax revenue); and energy (renewables and energy efficiency).

In addition, Germany played a commendable role in providing financial assistance during humanitarian crises in Pakistan, especially the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods. Germany has always supported Pakistan in providing better health and education services to its citizens. A positive aspect of this development partnership is that unlike partnerships with some other Western donors, which have been influenced by geo-politics, German-Pakistani cooperation has mostly remained smooth. This explain why Germany is viewed quite positively in Pakistan and its role in ensuring development in different spheres has drawn praise.

The second example is of a post that was shared by several people on social media about how Russia’s president forgot his wristwatch in the bathroom of the hotel he was staying at during his visit to Pakistan. According to the post, he later registered a complaint with the relevant authorities and they swiftly made some arrests in the case.

When the Russian president went back to his hotel room, he found his watch in the bathroom and informed the authorities. When the police officials who were dealing with the case were informed, they asked what they should do with the people who had been arrested and had even confessed to committing the theft.

This story was a satirical take on the nature of our police and how ‘efficient’ they are in making the accused ‘confess’ to committing a crime even if they are not the real culprits. This post was shared by highly educated people – some of whom are teachers in public-sector universities across the country – who took the story at face value. However, the truth is that no Russian president has ever visited Pakistan. In 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced that he would pay a state visit to Pakistan soon after his re-election. But he later cancelled his trip as he had to attend to other crucial engagements.

Curtailing fake news has now become a global issue. Last year, German lawmakers passed a controversial law whereby Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies could face fines worth EUR 50 million for failing to remove hate speech. Under the Network Enforcement Act, which is commonly referred to as the ‘Facebook 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.

In Pakistan, people tend to post and share whatever they like or dislike about others. This practice is not only prevalent on social media, but is also rampant on the electronic media where information is often provided in an extremely irresponsible manner without any respect for people’s ethnicity, culture, language and faith.

Accountability and reflection on our word and actions is critical, especially for people who are active in different spheres of life – such as politics, the media and academia – and have a large following. Instead of believing everything that we see or read and accepting it as the undeniable truth, it is essential to carry out preliminary research so that we are able to sift fact from fiction on issues that are highlighted by the so-called ‘experts’ who are active on social media as well as the electronic media.

The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow at the German Development Institute at Bonn, Germany.

Email: [email protected]

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