Saturday December 09, 2023

The threat of ‘fake news’ to Pakistan

May 29, 2021

As the Covid-19 pandemic has encouraged more and more people to use social media, the dangerous and harmful aspects of the web have been further unveiled.

When looking back to the initial outbreak, a local newspaper analysed data from 26th February to 9th April 2020, which suggested that desktop usage of Twitter increased by 22.84 per cent in Pakistan. There were also significant surges in the use of other platforms, including WhatsApp, Zoom and Facebook.

One of the main uses for Twitter is as a source of news which has fallen under the spotlight during recent years over the concerns of ‘fake news,’ which was dubbed word of the year by Collins in 2017. Though its usage pre-existed the presidency of Donald Trump, the frequent inclusion of it in his rhetoric was ironic given his tendency to sensationalise news.

Twitter has attempted to reduce the instances of widespread sharing of fake news such as through its “Covid-19 misleading information policy” in which violations lead to tweet deletion, application of a warning message and locks or permanent suspensions of accounts. But, inevitably, there remain instances where fake news goes undetected and where non-fake news posts are removed.

Back in January 2020, President of Pakistan, Dr Arif Alvi, wrote a piece in this very newspaper on the dangers that fake news poses to Pakistan, stating, “Television news is married, some may dare to call it ‘a marriage made in hell’, to the concept of ‘breaking news’. There is a race in the market of ‘who-gets-what’ first. We do realise that such a ‘first’, the more shocking the better, provides a competitive edge.”

He continued, “my serious concern is that we should not be ‘breaking’ people to create breaking news.” This is true even of news which is not fake. There seems to also be a tendency on Twitter to share graphic images of crimes, with the intention of catching the criminal and warning others of their behaviour. But, I wonder how many times the victims found alongside the criminals in those images have consented to it being shared, or did the sharers consider the long-term implications of the use of those images.

In terms of fake news, news outlets and their journalists with established reputations can also write sensationalist headlines and these are often shared hundreds or thousands of times on social media.

It is also a threat to Pakistan in terms of its international reputation when deceptive headlines are shared on the subject of Pakistan. In an investigation undertaken by the EU DisinfoLab, it was discovered that a disinformation operation was created to serve the interests of India internationally but also, as the report states, to produce “content to undermine — primarily – Pakistan”.

The so-called “Indian Chronicles,” the name given to the operation, utilised fake media, NGOs and even hijacked peoples’ identities to spread “negative content” about Pakistan. Perhaps the most shocking tactic was the use of the identity of Louis B Sohn, an acclaimed American human rights lawyer. Despite having passed away in 2006, his attendance was registered at an event in 2011 organised by “Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan” which was created by the Indian Chronicles to organise events in the European Parliament.

Those behind the Indian Chronicles are clearly not concerned about the state of minority rights in Pakistan, for example, they merely want to discredit Pakistan internationally.

This has the effect of potentially delegitimising the very organisations dedicated to the improvement of minority rights in Pakistan now that non-accredited NGOs have been openly associated with the Srivastava group.

In the UK, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) found that a British paper breached a clause of Editors’ Code of Practice in an article from June 2020, with the headline: “Pakistan was the origin for HALF of Britain’s imported coronavirus cases — amid calls for tougher quarantine checks from ‘high-risk’ countries.”

The point was made by a complainant to the watchdog that the headline was misleading in implying that it referred to the time of pandemic as a whole, as opposed to a specific period in June 2020 which the article goes on to explain.

Headlines are often eye-grabbing and emotive, but this cannot be at the expense of the argument within the larger article. This headline was not only misleading but could easily be met with an increase in a xenophobic backlash against the Pakistani community here in the UK.

Statistics, such as those presented by Hope Not Hate, have shown that, when a member of an ethnic or religious minority community is alleged to have committed a crime or caused suffering, there are increased instances of hate crime against that community. Thus, misleading headlines have the power to influence public opinion and function as the fuel for bigots.

When news articles such as this are put on Twitter, the platform of few words, many retweet it having only read the headline. Regardless of the full content of the article, it can easily become a hot item for trolls and keyboard-racists who merely want to spread hatred regardless of the facts. This is why Twitter now encourages users to read the article before retweeting it.

The implications of fake news also extend to matters of life and death. The UK’s South Asian community had been targeted with misinformation, especially via WhatsApp, regarding the contents and safety of the vaccines against Covid-19. It was thus no surprise that there were more negative attitudes towards having the vaccine among the Pakistani community.

The malicious designs behind orchestrated fake news and the lack of awareness behind unintentional fake news are major threats to every society. The connectivity of the world is a beautiful thing, it cannot be denied. But we each have a role to play in tackling often accusatory and harmful fake news, whether as journalists at the creative end or as social media users at the receiving end.

The writer, now working as a researcher and analyst, will soon be undertaking a PhD. She tweets @MaryFloraHunter