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Social media instrumental in spreading false information: report

By Our Correspondent
January 16, 2020

LAHORE:Journalists have identified social media as the hotbed of the spread of false information, noting that the increasing crisis of confidence in journalism is being fed by the weaponisation of the term fake news, according to a recent study.

The Digital Rights Foundation, a non-government advocacy-based research organization, on Wednesday released its report titled “Sifting truth from lies in the age of fake news.” The study attempts to identify topics that are more susceptible to fake news, and common methods of its dissemination. It also examines the extent of fact-checking practiced in Pakistan’s newsrooms and how often do journalists believe fake news to be true. Based on the experiences of 152 journalists and activists, who participated in a survey for the research, the report found that over 88per percent respondents identified social media platforms as the least worthy source of information with WhatsApp being a top choice. Eight percent of journalists said that no one fact-checked in the newsroom they worked at.

Some of the findings of the report are as follows: Journalists are not comfortable using the term “fake news” to describe news that is not true as it has increasingly been used in Twitter campaigns for partisan propaganda and discrediting credible journalism. It also found that politically contentious topics and censorship encouraged the spread of falsehoods online. Frequent accusations of “fake news” have led to an increase in interest in fact checking in newsrooms. According to participants in the study, fake news spread on Twitter via seemingly fake, hyper-nationalist accounts.

Others use doctored screenshots of major news outlets as “documentary evidence.” Fake Twitter profiles to impersonate well-known figures and disseminate false information using these profiles are also common. It also highlighted the severe dearth of media literacy training in Pakistan.

Only 17 per cent of the respondents said they have attended fact-checking training. There are no dedicated fact-checkers or fact-checking organisations based in Pakistan.

Ramsha Jahangir, the author of the study, said when journalists used “fake news” in their reporting, they were giving legitimacy to an unhelpful and increasingly dangerous phrase. “The findings of the study point towards an increasing weaponization of context. Old images, videos are packaged as new, doctored screenshots of tickers go viral and anything with a kernel of truth is used out of context. This is not “fake news.” We are all victims of information disorder,” she said.

Pointing to the report’s findings, DRF’s Nighat Dad said, “The fake news phenomenon in digital platforms is impacted by a complex set of deep-rooted ideological, cultural and political issues which demonstrates that this isn’t just a tech or media literacy problem, but also one that needs to be examined from a socio-psychological perspective. The lack of awareness among the public, media practitioners and journalist community is a big impediment to fighting fake news on digital platforms." The NGO also presented recommendations to tackle fake news and misinformation.

It urged the government to involve key stakeholders, including civil society, media practitioners, press clubs, journalist unions and news organisations, in legislation plans to regulate media and information disorder. It also called for media organisations and press clubs to invest in fact-checking training and verification tools for their staff.