Can't connect right now! retry

add The News to homescreen

tap to bring up your browser menu and select 'Add to homescreen' to pin the The News web app

Got it!

add The News to homescreen

tap to bring up your browser menu and select 'Add to homescreen' to pin the The News web app

Got it!

September 5, 2020

Enabler of fallacies


September 5, 2020

The portrait that adorns the one dollar bill since 1869 is that of George Washington, the United States founding father. He led the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War and was the first President of the United States. However, Washington fought a far more difficult and stressful war; a war against fake news.

It was during a crucial point of the Revolutionary War that a set of letters, written by a British sympathizer but falsely attributed to George Washington, mysteriously surfaced in London. These letters caused serious aspersions on Washington accusing him of being secretly loyal to King George of Britain.

The forged missives dogged Washington through the Revolutionary War, his presidency and the rest of his life. False allegation campaigns are all the more reprehensible and punishable because they create the intended perceptions.

Fake-news and propaganda campaigns have been around since ancient times. However, like oxygen and fuel remain means of a spreading fire, social media, an enabler of fallacies, ensures they spread globally like an all-consuming ever-increasing inferno.

David Patrikarakos is the author of ‘War in 140 characters: How social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century’. He writes, “Propaganda is as old as war itself but social media has allowed information operations a scope, reach and speed that was previously unthinkable”.

Social media was heralded as a global connector, the disseminator of instant information. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were designed to be the means to this end. What we have instead is a virtual world of shadows unleashing propaganda and falsehoods. It has also become the means to advertise terrorism.

The Christchurch carnage saw 51 people brutally murdered at two mosques during Friday prayers. The perpetrator, Brenton Tarrant, live-streamed the gruesome 17 minutes on Facebook shared on Twitter and Youtube which remained there for hours viewed by millions across the globe. A single verified Indonesian Instagram user who shared it had 1.6 million followers.

The late Dr John Cacioppo, psychology professor at the University of Chicago, established through one of his most well known studies that “our attitudes are more influenced by bad news than good news”.

Dr Rick Hanson, Neuropsychologist at University of California, Berkeley found that our “amygdala (brain’s integrative center for emotions and motivation) uses about two-thirds of its neurons to detect negativity and then quickly stores it into long-term memory”. Neuropsychologists call this the Brain’s Negativity Bias.

Many of us, knowingly or unknowingly, are culpable in this negativity bias. The knowing ones do it with premeditated intent. The unknowing ones, despite the knowledge that there are fake accounts and fake news, do not take the trouble to verify the received bit before passing it on. They become pawns in this despicable game which has ruined lives and homes; sometimes to the extreme extent of people taking their own lives.

In Pakistan, online defamation comes under a specific law that deals with cyber-crime. Under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act of 2016, an individual who makes a false allegation that is likely to harm an individual’s reputation is guilty of an offence carrying three years’ imprisonment. Some activists call this never-meted out punishment as a tool to suppress free speech. But is free speech devoid of differentiating between true or false?

Fake-news and trolling has become a hydra so lethal that, apart from ruining careers and taking lives, losing presidential candidates in the 2016 United States elections attributed their defeat to alleged Russian fake-news.

An analysis by the European Commission and the European Union’s diplomatic service alleged that Russian groups were carrying out disinformation campaigns aimed at influencing the 2019 European Parliamentary election.

In Pakistan, the growing threat of the 5th generation warfare sees a targeted campaign to sow seeds of discord by maligning individuals and institutions. It also acts as agent provocateur by fueling religious, ethnic and political strife.

In a June 2018 press-conference, the DG ISPR pointed out the growing slanderous social media propaganda against Pakistan and its institutions. He confirmed 10,000 troll social media accounts being created in a few months with 5000 cropping up in Afghanistan in just one day. Such campaigns, apart from settling personal scores, are aimed at creating a lack of trust between people and institutions.

The absolute lack of remorse of such campaigns can be gauged from a recent report published in the Harvard Gazette aptly captioned ‘Battling the pandemic of misinformation’. The phrase was coined by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres while highlighting the Covid-19 fake-news campaign.

Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health said, “The popularity and ubiquity of the various platforms means the public is no longer merely passively consuming inaccuracies and falsehoods, it’s disseminating and even creating them”.

The Covid-19 fake news campaign led to a survey finding 23 percent polled people saying that the Chinese had created the virus as a bio-weapon. Also viral were fake contents like a video purportedly showing Chinese troops executing affected residents in Wuhan.

Such falsehoods, apart from numerous others regarding false “treatment and prevention” measures may have resulted in many deaths but shall unfortunately remain unrelated to the fake campaigns; silent lethal killers themselves.

A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted the sheer hypocrisy of social platforms when it reported that Facebook ignored its hate speech policy and allowed anti-Muslim posts by BJP members. This was done to avoid ire of the Modi government.

Facebook India’s Public Policy Director Ankhi Das refused a ban on the BJP’s (Hindutva) Telangana MLA Raja Naval Singh whose Facebook posts labeled Indian Muslims as traitors, Rohingya refugees as terrorists, advocating that “they be shot” and calling for the demolition of mosques in India. Singh has over half a million followers on Facebook and 123 thousand on Facebook’s Instagram.

Facebook is also accused of illegally selling personal data of about 50 million Facebook users to Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling company. Zoom, the new video-conference fad, too has been sued in California for allegedly giving its users personal data to other companies including Facebook. These money making behemoths have morphed into stealthily operating predators.

Malicious campaigns based on falsehoods create doubts and pollute minds. Hitler more or less built an empire on the lies of his Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, whose famous dictum was: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”. Repeated lies and falsifications, over time, remain a lie but are perceived as the truth; classic fifth generation warfare - a battle of perceptions, a lethal tool in enemy hands.

Given the unfortunate politicization of all issues here, the Honourable CJ could take cognizance of this crucially important issue and ensure the parameters of free speech do not criminally encroach on national security and personal lives.

The government should take up these nefarious campaigns with the relevant social media platforms. Their representative offices in Pakistan should be a first step at thwarting the information warfare along with ensuring that the policies and conduct of these platforms strictly adhere to their stated policies.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Email: [email protected]