Monday June 17, 2024

Our misinformation dilemma

By Eric Shahzar
June 04, 2022

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent speech at the Harvard University Commencement has been making the media rounds lately. In the speech she quotes former Pakistan PM Benazir Bhutto on numerous occasions.

Benazir Bhutto herself was at the very same stage in 1989 – when she famously said that “democracy can be fragile”. Keeping in mind the track record of global democracy and Pakistan’s political crisis today; this quote is very apt.

Since day one, democracy has been far from perfect. In Athens, the birthplace of democracy, women were not granted any basic fundamental rights. In 19th Century America, keeping dozens of slaves as property was an acceptable norm. For the last few decades, preachers of liberal democracy have been practising illiberal values at home and abroad. But today what poses the biggest threat to democracy is the normalization of fake news and rampant misinformation.

Pakistan’s biggest concern is not the looming political instability or economic chaos, it is the spread of misinformation which has made state institutions more questionable and vulnerable than ever. In any democracy access to justice, equality of law and across-the-board accountability are top priority. However, with the normalization of fake news; a sense of anarchy has overshadowed Pakistani state institutions. Without a level of trust between the state and the public, democracy simply cannot work. On multiple occasions, politicians and even some journalists have endorsed fake news. Intentionally or unintentionally, fake news has made headlines in the country.

Misinformation sells by raising irrelevant questions, spreading dirt on rivals and planting foreign conspiracies. Citizens no longer know what to believe. Once people lose trust in leaders, media, state institutions and even in each other the misinformation game wins. Narratives of foreign conspiracies sell the most in countries like Pakistan. PTI Chairman Imran Khan has used this tactic to quadruple his support from the people of Pakistan. These people already carried a deep anti- US sentiment since the war on terror began, especially when US-led drone strikes were normalised, resulting in collateral damage and casualties of innocent people. Leaders who choose power over truth use misinformation to further cause chaos and pin down their opponents.

The world’s digital revolution has further exposed fault-lines in Pakistan’s media environment. The way we communicate and consume information is not the same as it used to be decades ago. The internet has connected billions of people together, integrated economies and opened up multiple new opportunities for individuals. At the same time, political leaders have used social media platforms to proliferate alternative facts and spread different ambiguous realities. The real truth is sometimes never to be seen. That is where misinformation wins. All of us have now become more prone to confirmation bias. We have developed a tendency to select opinions and perspectives based on pre-existing sets of beliefs.

So what is the way forward? During some of the most horrific times of WW2, philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr said that ‘man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary’. As Pakistan faces one of its most tumultuous and dangerous moments in its political history, we need to put a nip in the bud of the forces subverting democracy. Only by holding leaders accountable and empowering the people to form a robust public opinion can democracy sustain and defeat misinformation.

If leaders continue to use fake news for political gains, the country will move into a state of complete chaos and anarchy. Mass-scale censorship, suppressing dissent, and surveillance of citizens is not the way forward. A free and independent media institution must keep the population informed. Holding leaders accountable is as crucial for a sustainable democracy as are free and transparent elections.

Democracy is neither inevitable, nor self-executing. Only citizens can nurture it. More than political stability and economic healing, Pakistan needs urgent reconditioning of its moral codes. Unity here is key. Then only can we tackle the perils of fake news and misinformation. State institutions, political rivals and the media must stop brandishing daggers at each other. One reason why Bangladesh is the next Asian Tiger in the region is due to its unity despite unprecedented turbulence in the last few decades. Pakistan must take lessons.

The writer is a lecturer in foreign policy.