A free and credible press is the only way to prevent social media disinformation from taking hold of the narrative
On January 9, at 11.41 pm, there was a nationwide blackout in Pakistan. As the hours went by, people started discussing the situation with their friends and family via text and whatsapp. Eventually, they realised that this was a nationwide blackout. Most mainstream outlets did not report on the blackout until the morning. Had you googled the phrase ‘nationwide blackout’ during the event you would not have seen any posts on the websites of mainstream media companies. Yet, there was an immediacy to the event and people took to social media to figure out the cause. Hashtags related to the blackout were trending and various causes were posited, including the idea that we were at war with India. The reality, as it turned out, was far less dramatic. It was an engineering fault and a consequence of a crumbling electrical infrastructure.
It takes time for traditional news outlets to figure out the causes of such an event, get statements from official sources and corroborate the story on the ground. But when a nation sits in darkness, the public feels an urgency to find out what is going on. And they seek immediate, if faulty and unverified, answers on the internet. The audience’s perception, shaped as it is now by the fickle and short-lived outrage culture of social media, demands drama. For millennials and Gen Z especially, the public attention span has shrunk to the 280 character limit of Twitter. In the internet age, the 24-hour news cycle has shrunk to the point that people expect instantaneous coverage of news, which necessitates compromising quality and credibility for speed. It takes time to verify and corroborate a story, speak to primary and secondary sources and get an overview of the situation on the ground.
The term “fake news” was coined initially by the mainstream corporate media to describe Breitbart and other ultra-right digital media outlets that helped Donald Trump. Armies of trolls and social media bots helped lead the Trump campaign to victory, capitalising on the anti-elite sentiment of the white working classes, who felt that they had been left behind by the Obama-era recovery, while big banks, mortgagees and Wall Street emerged unscathed from the bursting of a real estate bubble that they had themselves created. The alt-right was able to channel the frustrations of white working class towards globalism, immigrants, Muslims and other minorities. The emergence of the alt-right in the mainstream imagination exemplifies how, in the era of social media, a loud but fringe minority can take hold of the public narrative by shifting the Overton window.
In his retaliation against the media, Trump turned the term “fake news” against the media. He and his supporters labelled outlets that had been heretofore widely respected, like CNN and The New York Times as “fake news” simply for not giving him glowing reviews. The media, in turn, doubled down on their hyperbolic anti-Trump coverage. In terms of public trust, the US news media did not do itself any favours by covering every incendiary, albeit comical, Trump tweet as an existential threat to American democracy. The Russian disinformation campaign on Facebook and other social media sites did in fact skew public discourse in Trump’s favour, but going so far as to label him a Russian plant in the White House was a bridge too far.
As it turns out, a lot of the reporting on Russia-gate was faulty. Trump, as was obvious just from watching the news during his presidency, committed his misdeeds very much in public. His “collusion” with Russia mostly involved a public press conference in which he said his infamous “Russia, if you’re listening” line, encouraging the Russians to hack into Hilary Clinton’s emails. At the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump said that it was just a joke and that he had been maliciously misquoted: “They cut it off right at the end so that you don’t then see the laughter, the joke. And they said, ‘He asked. He asked for help.’ Right?”
Despite the fact that traditional journalists are fighting social media misinformation across the globe, mainstream media outlets also get things wrong. Political talk shows in Pakistan feature analysts who consistently engage in ultra-crepidarianism. The term “tajzia nigar” has become a catch-all that implies that the same people are qualified to discuss everything from economics to the environment and viral serology, even if they are not well-versed in the subject at hand.
On April 12, the PEMRA imposed a Rs 200,000 fine on ARY News for airing incorrect information about Meesha Shafi’s court appearances after she filed a complaint against the network. Amid growing concern that the PEMRA has become a smokescreen for state censorship of the press, as well as calls from activists affiliated with the Aurat March for the PEMRA to crack down on defamatory and incorrect coverage against individual women’s rights activists and the movement as a whole, this fine came as a welcome move.
Yet, by and large, the PEMRA has been overreaching in its role as a regulatory body, as censorship has moved beyond the silencing of heterodox viewpoints to suppressing objective, fact-based reporting and the free flow of information. A clear example of this was the PEMRA banning news networks from covering an incident of the magnitude of the nationwide TLP protests. Streets all over the country turned into battlefields as an outnumbered police force, already impacted by the pandemic and a deteriorating law and order situation (the rates of both cyber and physical crimes have risen during the pandemic, globally), struggled to prevent the now-proscribed organisation from taking over the country in a show of brute force. Yet, when people turned on the TV to see what was happening, what their daily commute would be like or to gain clarity during a fraught situation for the country, the top news bulletins on the main channels were about prices and 9th graders returning to schools. Yet, it is not possible to keep such an uproarious event secret. People turned to social media, which abounded with fake news, such as the rumour that Khadim Rizvi’s younger son had been killed by police, which turned out to be completely fabricated.
Severing people’s access to credible news about what is happening in their streets amounts to gaslighting the public. The fact that the PEMRA can instantaneously block coverage of an event of such national significance lends itself to the appearance of a fascistic control on the flow of information. During the protests, the PTA had also disrupted internet connectivity and access to social media for a short time. In a post-pandemic world, where workplaces, classes and even doctor’s appointments occupy online spaces, blocking internet and mobile data services disrupts the lives of millions of people. And there was such a great backlash, on social media of course, that the government could not impose the ban a second time.
As people could not find out what was happening on mainstream outlets they flocked to social media, where TLP accounts were able to skew the narrative and gain more supporters with a concerted and well-organised disinformation campaign. Thus, the ban on TLP coverage had the opposite effect of what it was ostensibly intended to do: to prevent the movement from gaining even more public support than it already has.
The PEMRA notice against ARY News shows that it is capable of functioning as an objective authority, beholden to the interests of the public and the ethics of journalism. But there is a need to democratise the body. In the absence of a regulatory authority, the media – just like artists, writers and people who play significant roles in public discourse – is beholden to its audience. If a show does not serve the interests of the public, people will simply stop watching it and it will no longer be competitive. Media figures and proponents of free speech in Pakistan, wary of further censorship from the state, tend to hesitate from arguing that a state body should regulate the press. In fact, the ban on TLP coverage suggests that a free and credible press is the only way to prevent social media disinformation from taking hold of the narrative.
The audience too, needs to be educated. Teaching students at the school and college level to discern between fake and credible news is essential in the modern world. As social media and search engine algorithms push people deeper into partisan echo chambers, it is important to encourage people to consume news from outlets across the political spectrum, even those that represent viewpoints that they do not agree with, to prevent shifting the Overton window to one extreme or the other. Fringe narratives of the far-right or the radical left have downstream effects that shift the entire discourse. Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement in the US have shifted the Overton window, in terms of political economy, to the left and “socialist” is no longer a derogatory term in the way it had been due to the after effect of the McCarthy era and the red-baiting of the Cold War. This shift has led to a real grassroots movement against income and wealth inequality in the US.
Conversely, in Pakistan, the TLP’s grassroots movement, on the streets, on social media and through mosques, has shifted the Overton window to the right in the blasphemy versus free speech debate. The mainstream right becomes the far-right as people who once only had religious-right ideologies become violent extremists. The centre shifts rightwards along with them, as blasphemy becomes a difficult topic to discuss. And the left-wing is cowed into taking a more centrist position and shies away from a full-throated and unequivocal defence of free speech.
With the sheer amount of information that is shared on the internet, it is not possible to completely put an end to fake news. But, the democratisation of information that the internet has brought about means that credible reporting can win over disinformation in the free marketplace of ideas. Similarly, extremism and demagoguery can also be defeated in the free market of ideas, not by censorship but through open, civil debate.
The writer is a staff member. She can be reached on instagram @amar.alam_literally