Tuesday April 16, 2024

Our multiverse of disinformation

By Shaukat Ahmed
May 19, 2022

The rise of populism and populist leaders worldwide rely on a key human trait: it’s far more convenient to blame someone or something else for our misfortunes than to accept responsibility for our actions.

Inspired by the success of Trumpian politics, populist leaders are adopting that philosophy in a copycat phenomenon that is slowly evolving into a global populist pandemic. Although the tactics are similar and essentially based on the exploitation of existing prejudices, much like a virus each region is generating its own unique mutation designed to thrive and spread in the environment it has had a genesis in.

Recently ousted prime minister Imran Khan is a disturbing iteration of this phenomenon. Removed through a constitutionally prescribed democratic process of a no-confidence vote, he has effectively shifted the narrative from the disadvantageous reality that he failed at almost every aspect of governance and his dismal performance has left Pakistan’s economy in a critical condition, to a fabricated narrative that he is the victim of an alleged US regime change conspiracy. A recently evolved mainstream media and a social media rapidly growing in use and adoption in Pakistan’s new normal have been the key weapons in his campaign to reinvent himself as a demagogue. He has even managed to escalate the gravity of his narrative to present it as a fight for our independence and sovereignty and a tacit declaration of all those who oppose him as treacherous traitors.

It is still an open debate whether the extreme positioning of media outlets, now not uncommon in the world, is a major cause of the rising populism or its byproduct. Following this trend and amidst the rapidly escalating political conflict in Pakistan some of the mainstream media seems to have descended into a ‘multiverse of disinformation’. Divergent and dissenting viewpoints are conducive to productive debate, but some established channels with substantial viewership are now engaged in an outright propaganda war – presenting an alternate reality that has transformed free speech into a free for all. The incessant need to sensationalize has now degenerated into a need to fictionalize. Bias is precipitously morphing into hate. It is incredibly unsettling to watch some TV anchors on these channels admiringly laugh at the way the president and Punjab governor recently made a mockery of the constitution and court verdicts. This is also indicative of a dark ethical numbness rapidly spreading in our country.

Disseminating a false narrative has become as simple as sharing or generating a thought and then letting collaborators run amok with it. The ruthless efficiency with which this has been accomplished in Pakistan has astounded many – and our institutions have also been caught off guard. A mature democracy is more resilient to this onslaught. In Pakistan, which is gradually evolving from a repressed society where thought and expression have been traditionally monitored, controlled, and even engineered, the newfound freedom that the information age provides is resulting in unpredictable, unexpected and sometimes potentially dire consequences.

Case in point: it is beyond absurd how much debate on television and how many tweets are generated each day either in support or in rebuttal of a US regime change conspiracy in Pakistan. One man’s gift for political theatre and subterfuge has created a nationwide discussion on a non-existent concocted issue without providing a shred of evidence. The problem with false narratives is that once widespread enough they establish a life of their own. Consequently, this debate is now starting to fuel emotions and outrage on both sides, reducing it in nature to a no-holds-barred brawl as opposed to a discourse based on rationality and tangibility.

In Pakistan the noise generated by paid bots is especially effective in drowning out the truth. Ironically, the cynicism and mistrust prevalent in our society has driven people in droves towards social media perceiving it as a source of unbiased, credible and unfiltered information. In fact, the opposite is true. It is far easier to fabricate information on social media anonymously with almost no accountability as well as instantly. This combined with the pervasive use of smartphones in almost all segments of society, from the working class to the affluent, has made the dissemination of information or disinformation, opinion sharing and access to information available to all with a simple tap on these devices. The more widely and rapidly one is able to deploy information in this new normal, the more effectively perception and opinion can be influenced and manipulated.

Politicians with the help of their propaganda collaborators are now easily able to repackage reality and rebrand themselves. We have a former information minister who oversaw the victimization and suppression of the media now championing freedom of the press. A former finance minister whose stint is a case study in catastrophic indecisiveness and who was removed by his own prime minister in a matter of months demonstrating that he had neither the ability nor the experience to manage a national economy is now offering a critique on economic management and paralysis in decision making. An energy minister whose inexcusable negligence in the timely procurement of energy supplies resulted in rising prices as well as severe shortages is now advocating efficient energy supply management. A human rights minister who was notably silent in her tenure on human rights violations now constantly engages in Twitter rants condemning encroachment of civil liberties.

These politicians are much like a salesperson who was peddling a product found harmful to the public and discontinued. After loss of power and authority they have effectively used the media to start peddling the same product in new packaging. However, much like the salesman in this analogy, new packaging notwithstanding, the product is still harmful to the public and must remain off the shelves.

The anonymity that social media provides is also an ideal setup for the good cop, bad cop tactic. Party leaders publicly condemn malicious propaganda campaigns aimed at pressurizing the state institutions while at the same time directly fostering and promoting the propaganda offensive through their minions. This plausible deniability enables them to go beyond any semblance of proprietary right into the outrageous and obscene. Even in countries with absolute freedom of speech, fabricating and disseminating fake news is a legally actionable offence but to add to the complexity of this issue in Pakistan a history of managing the press and disregard for legal due process enables even malicious propagandists to now portray themselves as victims of persecution. The truth has become so convoluted that it is incredibly hard to discern it from a lie.

Pakistan is in uncharted waters and politicians, media, institutions as well as the general populace need to catch up rather quickly. Essentially, we have been plunged into the ocean without any swimming lessons or gradual training. We have no choice but to learn to swim with exceptional haste if we are to not drown in this undiscovered ocean, we find ourselves in. Particularly critical now is the role of the pillars of our journalistic community; individuals with unquestionable integrity who must now act as lifeguards and prevent the rest of us from drowning in disinformation on their watch. It’s a burden but it’s a burden they must carry.

At this moment in our history this is not merely a professional obligation, our country is demanding this of them. Fortunately for us, there is no shortage of such individuals in our country. Silver lining: just as there are many spreading disinformation, there is an equal and growing number of people fighting our battle everyday on our TV screens as well as the digital landscape of social media, fact checking, asking the hard questions, calling out the lies, exposing the misrepresentations, and advocating the truth. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that although we are sure to get bruised, we may yet swim out of this perfect storm.

The writer is a UK and US based entrepreneur. He tweets @viewpointsar and can be reached at: