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September 6, 2018
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Post-truth dilemmas

Opinion

September 6, 2018

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The federal government’s plans to set up a new body called the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority – which will do away with Pemra – open up a number of potential dangers.

Although the details of this plan are as yet unclear, there is conjecture that the authority might also be ‘regulating’ the established print media, even though there are separate networks and bodies to control what is said in print, and any effort to strangulate it further could lead to dangerous consequences.

To some degree, this is also true of television channels. When a state attempts to control the flow of news, it often does more damage than good. Given the state of our electronic media, there is need for it to develop a mature attitude and end the dissemination of fake news, which is often picked up from the wild jungle represented by social media over which no real controls exist, and which allows individuals, groups or those representing particular interests to spread any form of propaganda.

The problems with this were pointed out quite eloquently by Bilawal Bhutto in his address at Davos this year. He said that business interests, other interests, and political groups were using social media to target particular individuals, including social activists – in some cases by labelling them as traitors or people involved in blasphemous activity.

This is an extremely dangerous trend in an age when the news that appears on social media – which includes not only Facebook, Twitter and other forums, but also messaging services such as WhatsApp – can spread like wildfire once something posted, out of ignorance or mala-fide intentions, is forwarded quickly with a single tap on a screen, often without much thought or assessment.

This phenomenon has already done a considerable amount of damage in our country, as is the case in other countries. Thousands of social media messages never make it to the mainstream print media because they cannot be authenticated and, therefore, don’t go past the barriers and checks that still exist in a traditional newsroom whereby news passes through various hands before it goes into print. Sadly, our television channels have faltered in setting up similar controls. This has led to its own chain of problems.

The government should bear in mind that any effort to control or regulate the media must in the first place be carried out only in closed consultation with the relevant stakeholders, including media owners, professionals and editors. In many ways, there is an answer to the problem. Owing to the nature of their job, journalists are desperate for information or news. If accurate news were offered to them more freely – as is the case in other countries such as the US where official spokespersons often explain decisions taken, even if a spin is added to this information – much could be done to mitigate the issue.

The secretive manner in which our state operates, with even the minutes of cabinet meetings not made accessible to the media, opens up many windows whereby falsified news can slip through and make it into the public arena. We should also be asking why we are attempting to control the media and why we are one of the few democratic countries in the world where an information ministry exists.

Surely our best bet for the future is to encourage and, in some instances, compel the media to introduce tough internal controls. Making attempts to ensure that libel laws are adhered to is one method to achieve this. There are also other measures that have been effectively used in many countries to limit what is said over both print and electronic media.

What should be of key concern to the government is finding some way to prevent distorted news from spreading over social media. Before Election 2018, Facebook had entered into an agreement with AFP to identify fake news and remove it from its pages. But more needs to be done. According to a rather limited survey, the majority of young people between the age of 18 and 35 use social media as their main source of news. Those older than them still rely to a greater extent on print and electronic media. These young people are, therefore, most vulnerable to fake news. Even though 93 percent of them say that they are aware of a problem, around 83 percent concede that they have been taken in by fake news.

Social media can be used in an extremely dangerous way to manipulate events. Since 2016, when Donald Trump’s campaign was at its zenith, there has been evidence that fake news, manufactured and planted from Russia, was used to bolster him and defeat his rival, Hillary Clinton. When entire states are believed to be involved in generating fake news, we are truly in a very precarious situation.

It is no longer possible to tell what is true and what is fake. This goes beyond the far older reality that an absolute truth is difficult to identify. News, as studies have shown, is almost always subjective – even though journalists may strive for that elusive target of objectivity. This may be an impossible goal to obtain owing to their own beliefs, sources of knowledge, and the opinions that they have collected over the years.

But this problem is quite different to the web of fake news that we must now make our way through. There have been images, purportedly from Syria, which later turned out to be untrue. A recent YouTube video showed an 11-year-old girl from Yemen stating that she was to be married off within days by her parents. This later proved to be incorrect and the journalist who broke this story duly apologised. But the shocking video stayed in people’s minds – as do others.

Fake news is mostly either politically motivated or planted by various lobbies. For example, lobbies promoting grains insist that new fad diets that contain enormous amounts of wheat, quinoa or other substances can deliver enormous health benefits. Cures for specific diseases that are based on a specific diet have also been posted all over social media. In some cases, these are simply intended to boost the sale of specific items and have nothing to do with reality.

The government is advised to look into this problem rather than establish a new body to ‘control’ or regulate the media. In the past, such attempts have simply deprived people of information and led them to rely further on news which may be falsified.

We need to make people aware of how they can identify fake news, whether it is based on the use of illegal items and the sale of certain substances, or revolves around the character and behaviour of political and social figures. In today’s world, we simply cannot believe anything at face value. People need to develop the habit of checking and verifying what they come across over social media through credible websites which specialise in these matters, by using their common sense, and through a review of mainstream media.

Our failings in this regard are becoming a major problem. It is far more important to manage this issue than to set up new bodies, which could further harm a media that, in the case of television channels, is still trying to find its feet.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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