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March 14, 2019

Real or fake?


March 14, 2019

S Qaisar Shareef

Over the last few days, it appears the temperature in the India-Pakistan conflict has come down a bit, much to the relief of the world, and particularly for the Pakistani-American community.

Those of us living here in America have watched the tensions with concern, fearing the conflict may spiral out of control. During these tensions it has been hard to assess where the Trump administration stands on this matter since the president was occupied with his summit with North Korean leader and increasingly with domestic political crises.

In today’s world of social media and internet news, another victim of the India-Pakistan tensions has been the inability to sort fact from fiction. Just like most of us, I receive dozens of messages every day from my friends who are spread across the world. Many of these messages, delivered via WhatsApp on my mobile phone, contain news clips, video footage, pictures and opinions. Most of these are designed to prove a viewpoint or elicit an emotional reaction while masquerading as news. While some are easily seen as fictitious, many of them are hard to confirm or deny. Given human nature, we tend to believe what reinforces our existing views, and discard those that challenge our beliefs.

Another sad outcome of India-Pakistan tensions has been the collapse of the role of responsible journalism. It has been deeply saddening to see so many newsmen and women, people charged with enlightening the public with facts and analysis, turn into hot-headed rabble-rousers, trying to work their audience into a frenzy. It must be said some of the worst examples of these have been seen in India where more than 400 television channels are reported to operate. Being an election year in India has seriously contributed to this environment, in addition to the fact that there is deep anger at the loss of 44 soldiers killed in a suicide attack in Kashmir.

The search for truth has been difficult, and not just in the India-Pakistan conflict. Here in the US a very prominent Washington DC-based newspaper has been tracking “false and misleading” statements made by President Trump since coming into office. At last count, the number was above an unbelievable 9000. This just over his first 773 days in office, which makes it over 11 ‘untruths’ each and every day. With this coming from our leadership, what can one expect from opinions and TV clips on social media coming from unknown sources?

The need for responsible journalism is now greater than ever – just as there is a great need for calm and mature leadership. It would be fair to say the calm demeanour displayed by the leaders of Pakistan in recent days have so far been very helpful in defusing the crisis with India. However, when electoral politics get into the mix irresponsible behaviour starts to emerge.

Here in the US, the president has repeatedly tried to discredit all media outlets whose coverage he does not like. Among them are very reputable newspapers and television channels. As a result, many of his avid supporters totally refuse to believe what is reported in many parts of the media. After all, the president has told them these newspapers and TV channels are the “enemy of the people”.

It was expected that broad access to the internet and the ability to freely post one’s views would lead to democratisation of information. So far, just the opposite seems to be happening with extreme and often unsubstantiated views proliferating.

The world is going through a very tough transition in information dissemination. How we come out of it will determine if democracy can survive as a system of government.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC.

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