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PTI move against fake news falls short of addressing false charges

While the newly formed government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) is scrambling to counter the threat of fake news spread through social media, it is defending its own past involvement in spread of false information claiming that allegations levelled by politicians should not be called fake news.

By Waseem Abbasi
October 05, 2018

ISLAMABAD: While the newly formed government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) is scrambling to counter the threat of fake news spread through social media, it is defending its own past involvement in spread of false information claiming that allegations levelled by politicians should not be called fake news.

An official twitter account has been created by the Ministry of Information to bust fake news against PTI and its government but the Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Media Iftikhar Durrani claims that allegations levelled by PTI leadership in past which later turned out to be untrue can’t be called fake news.

“Fake news is when someone creates a fake notification or forged document and presents it as real. You should differentiate between fake news and allegations,” Durrani told The News. He said PTI has never been involved in fake news as it merely conveyed reports carried by media.

But the experts do not agree with this definition. Cambridge Dictionary defines fake news as “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke”.

Dr Rauf Arif, a professor of social media at Texas-Tech University of the United States also opines that false allegations are also fake news. He said in America some politicians defend their spread of fake news as alternative facts. “In Pakistan politicians can differentiate between allegations, rumours and fake news but academics do not differentiate between them”.

It is commonly observed in Pakistan that false allegations are levelled against opponents without any fear of consequences. These allegations are then promoted through social media memes and graphics and they are repeated so often that people are made to believe they are true. Even if the victims move the court against such allegations, the cases drag on for years and the victims continue to suffer.

“I welcome the government’s effort to discourage fake news, but in order to do so, they will have to start from busting all the fake news that actually benefit them. Current government can’t simply hide under the umbrella of terminologies such as fake versus allegations, rather the current administration has to acknowledge this problem on all fronts. They should also bust fake news that hurts their political opponents,” Dr Arif, a former journalist of Pakistani origin said. This way, he said, the government initiative will gain trust and credibility among masses.

“Otherwise, this initiative will be considered yet another tool of promoting the ruling party’s narrative, whether it’s based on fake news or truth,” Professor Arif said. He said fake news was not mere political tool but is hurting common man in all walks of life. “I have seen fake news and hoaxes about healthcare, tourism, sports, economy, education—you name it— spreading on cyber platforms like a jungle fire,” he said adding that action must be taken on all of these fronts, rather than just playing a game for political scoring. For example, a fake news about the harms of vaccines tuned many people away from getting vaccinated in the United States.

The move to create an official twitter account shows seriousness of threat posed by fake news. Since its creation two days ago the account @FakeNews_Buster, created by the Ministry of Information, has already refuted three fake news stories making rounds on social media. The account refuted fake news on appointment of Maleeka Bukhari as BISP Chairperson. It also refuted that the daughter of first lady has been appointed adviser to prime minister. The account also refuted and condemned “baseless” stories by an Urdu and an English daily about the first lady.

However, PTI is not the only political party falling victim to fake news. Perhaps this is the first time PTI is at the receiving end of the fake news attack. During its five years in opposition, PTI and its top leadership had itself been accused of spreading fake social media news through public rallies and statements. In turn PML-N too did not lag behind and was accused by opponents of resorting to social media for spreading fake news about PTI leaders. Pro-PTI and anti-PML-N fake news had been rampant on social media during the last five years but no serious efforts were made either by PML-N or PTI to challenge those fake news. No efforts were made to refute fake news such as fake ranking of world’s most corrupt parties which showed PML-N as the world’s 4th most corrupt party.

It’s very easy to vilify anyone through social media. One can easily scandalise anyone to an extent that to create mountain no molehill is required. One can safely brand the other who differs as traitor, Indian agent who thrives on proceeds of corruption and what not. Such heinous charges are then spread on social media through multiple identities. Fake news are generated, pictures photoshopped to forge graphics to assassinate character of a victim. Once a fake news is created, its spread is immeasurable, as thousands of followers and supporters of the fake news producer use the entire spectrum of social media to further spice up fake allegations.

A fake story was spread through a fake website impersonating US TV channel Fox News ( Similarly, fake news about PTI chief Imran Khan’s picture displayed at Riyadh's Kingdom Centre was picked even by a local TV channel from social media. Again PTI did not refute that powerfully.

Apart from these small stories, there were at least four major issues raised powerfully by PTI leadership during last five years which later turned out to be fake news.

“IB bribing journalists with Rs2.7 billion fund”

Firstly, it had been claimed at a public rally in Jhelum in November 2014 that a number of pro-PML-N journalists and anchors have been given bribe worth millions by the Intelligence Bureau (IB). It had had alleged that Intelligence Bureau (IB) distributed Rs2.7 billion among those television journalists. The Intelligence Bureau had immediately denied the claim. Terming it a fake news, the journalists who were named in social media posts had demanded thorough investigation into the matter. To date no evidence could be brought in public about those allegations. Journalists are now demanding PTI government to bring on record any evidence on bribery claims as now the IB is under PTI’s control.

“Rigging through 35 punctures”

On May 12, 2014, the PTI chairman had strongly criticised former Punjab caretaker chief minister Najam Sethi for his alleged role in rigging in the 2013 general elections. “Next time the caretaker chief minister should not be like the one who mended 35 punctures,” he said repeating his allegations that Sethi had helped the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) rig the elections by misusing his position as the Punjab chief minister. The allegations of 35 punctures however later turned out to be another fake news for which PTI apologised. On July 2, 2015 PTI leader and current President of Pakistan took to twitter to apologise for the allegations. “It is time to apologise for 35 punctures. Many rumours regarding source of information & content were afloat and I believed some of them”. We should have checked the facts before making such an accusation,” he said adding, “We should not have believed on false accusations.”

“Rs300 billion looted by Nawaz Sharif”

PTI chairman and other leaders claimed on numerous occasion that former PM Nawaz Sharif had looted Rs300 billion from the country and sent it abroad. However an investigation by this correspondent revealed that the figure was not based on any court document or any probe by National Accountability Bureau (NAB) or Joint Investigation Team (JIT). The PTI leadership told The News that the figure was made public by PTI spokesperson and current information minister Fawad Chauhdry. When contacted by The News Chauhdry said the calculations were made by his accountant in Jhelum. He promised to share the number of his accountant but the same could not happen so far even after three months. While cases of corruption against Nawaz Sharif are currently pending with NAB courts one can say with certainty that at least the figure of Rs300 billion is fake news as authentic figures of any corruption are yet to be provided by court or prosecution.

Stash of money discovered from “deceased” Indian politician’s house

On December 19 last year, a top PTI leader again fell prey to fake news. While expressing his disgust over corrupt leaders he tweeted “Shashikala, a famous South Indian actress-turned-politician in India’s Tamil Nadu died recently and beneath her house were discovered gold reserves, jewels, and an illegal stash of money! A message to all corrupt leaders: the hoarded billions stolen from our impoverished masses will be left behind.”

He also posted a few pictures in his tweet. However, it later transpired that neither his facts were correct, nor were his pictures original. A Dubai-based journalist Sadiq S Bhat was quick to point out factual inconsistencies in the PTI leaders's post. He pointed out that the South Indian actress Shashikala is serving a four-year term in jail at the moment, and is not dead. He also clarified that it was, in fact, Shshaikala’s friend, Jayalalitha, (the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu) who had passed away last year.

The four pictures that the PTI leader posted were also not from 'a secret tunnel' in Sasikala or Jayalalithaa's house. The pictures had been taken from bank robberies in two different places in India. After the gaffe was caught by a Gulf News journalist Sadiq S Bhat, the PTI leader promptly deleted his tweet.

When contacted by The News, Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Media Iftikhar Durrani said that PTI had never been involved in fake news. He said the news about IB distributing money to journalists was reported by media and PTI leadership just spoke about those reports. “If the news was fake, reporting should be questioned not the PTI,” he said. When asked whether PTI government would probe the allegations of IB distributing money to journalists he said there are no such plans at the moment.

He said allegations of 35 punctures were not fake news. “A judicial commission was formed to probe rigging which was the main allegations in 35 puncture story so we can’t call it fake news.”

He said PTI was never involved in forgery or creating of fake documents.

On allegations of Rs300 billion corruption by Nawaz Sharif, Durrani said the case is still pending in the court. He said figures were mentioned in JIT reports where Capital FZE transactions are mentioned. “It is part of court record”, he claimed. However The News has checked and confirmed that NAB prosecution teams, JIT report or any court document does not contain such figure. Durrani said PTI said there is difference between allegations and fake news. “In my view fake news is when a forged document is created or a fake notification is issued while allegations are different.”

He said the initiative against fake news has been taken by the Ministry of Information to counter the challenge mounted on social media. When asked about whether action will also be taken against pro-PTI fake news, he said media should be patient as all kind of fake news will be responded to.