The need for questions

January 5, 2020

Sifting fact from fiction should be our new year resolution

Dear All,

The third decade of the 21st Century has now begun but we are all still coming to terms with how our lives have been altered by the tech-and-social-media revolution of the these past few decades.

What is there to ‘come to terms with’ you will probably ask, citing (probably) how much easier tech and social media have made our lives. Well the answer is: the fallout of this digital communications revolution is still being felt in ways that many people are not even aware of.

A phone and a broadband connection can put anyone in touch with all sorts of material, anywhere, any time. Such connectivity helps people learn and communicate and creates wonderful interest- oriented communities across the globe , but it does have many sinister aspects because the same facility creates networks of hate and violence, networks that enable savvy companies to collect data about individuals and societies. This connectivity also enables the grooming and abuse of vulnerable individuals.

Personal data is now said by many to be an asset ‘more valuable than oil’ and indeed the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal shows how valuable such data is in manipulating voters and gaining power. Our existing systems of law and regulation are still struggling to catch up with these developments but as they do, each one of us needs to be ever more aware of how it is important to question EVERYTHING that is circulated on social media. News can be fake, news videos can be fakes. Lies can be circulated on Facebook and Twitter in the guise of ‘fact’ and thousands of people can get involved in taking sides and baying for blood.

Personal data is now an asset ‘more valuable than oil’ and indeed the Cambridge Analytica / Facebook scandal shows how valuable such data is in manipulating voters.

This lynch mob aspect of social media (‘twynch mob’ on Twitter), is something that needs to be watched carefully. The UK has ruled that if you make – or even share— a defamatory allegation about somebody on Twitter, you can be sued for libel. Some people in Britain have gone down this litigation route and won payouts, but the problem is that litigation is a daunting and expensive process. Also, a lot of the damage is already done through the dissemination of the allegations.

This is proving to be a difficult issue all over the world, including in Pakistan where we see how blocks of diehard supporters (and diehard Bots), can abuse and defame anybody they want to ruin or pressure. This weaponization, the use of a twynch mob, ensures the targetted individual that is not only put under severe pressure but also that the mainstream media is forced to take notice of the allegations. This ‘taking notice of the story’ results in published interviews where the allegations are given further publicity, and which have the twynch mob even more agitated about the need for ‘justice.’

These sorts of coercive or defamatory campaigns have always been around in various, more primitive, forms before their creators appropriated social media. What all of us need to do now is ask more questions. We need to question things like sources, timing, credibility and so on. We need to ask more questions about why some stories simply disappear (videos of abuse of office and indecent advances made by judicial personalities, to cite just a hypothetical example), and why other ‘stories’ are whipped up into a frenzy of outrage and twynch mob demands.

We need to be aware that it is us who are using social media and it is not social media that is using us. Please, let’s all make sorting fact from fiction one of our new year resolutions.

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

The writer is a former BBC broadcaster and producer, and one of the founding editors of Newsline.

Twitter: @umberkhairi

New Year's resolution: Sifting fact from fiction on social media