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The ‘fake news’ problem

Trust in state institutions, political parties and media outlets is at an historical low. In the post truth world, information disorder is the spectre haunting all. We are all at war. An information war.

Social media platforms ease the spread of fake news as vehicles of news without the responsibility of source and authenticity. Platforms with its ability for users to generate their own data and the manner in which social media timelines are constructed with algorithms that boost the most sensationalist news is emerging as the medium where we see the most fake news emerging.

Private or semi-private social media applications such as WhatsApp are emerging as hotbeds of fake news as there is very little content regulation happening in these cases.

Given the sheer deluge of information, spreading falsehoods is easier than ever before.

Censorship also leads to fake news becoming more believable – the more that people are intuitively aware of the fact that they are not getting the full picture from mainstream news sources, even if they are not sure what they aren’t being told, will gravitate towards social media and unreliable sources of information.

Take the example of Coronavirus. The outbreak has stoked a wave of anti-China sentiment around the globe. Hoaxes have spread widely online, promoted by conspiracy theorists and exacerbated by a dearth of information. Fact-checkers around the world have debunked fake public advisories. Fact-checking initiative PolitiFact said misinformation about the virus online included hoaxes about its source, its spread, and how to treat it, as well as false conspiracies about its connection to biological warfare and the Chinese government.

Misinformation is not always political. But, it is always contagious.

President Arif Alvi, in his recent column on the fake news conundrum, identified that the major tool for fake news and attacks is ‘de-contextualisation’.

In a recent Digital Rights Foundation study titled ‘Sifting Truth from Lies’, journalists too recognised weaponization of context. In fact, more than fake news being a problem of the media, it has been weaponised into a tool to discredit the traditional gatekeepers of information.

The reason we’re struggling with a replacement is because this is about more than news, it’s about the entire information ecosystem.

To better understand the problem then, the study highlights three major factors that need to be accounted for when dealing with falsehoods online. The type of content being created and distributed, the reasons and motivations behind networks who spread falsehoods, and the methods such content is disseminated.

The creators of fake news are aware that consumers of news are much less likely to be critical of information that supports their existing beliefs. And, as information overload exhausts their brains, they are much easier to influence. In fact, one does not even have to be convinced, it is enough to simply confuse them.

Sock puppet accounts and click farms manipulate the trending sections of social media platforms and their recommendation systems to make people see the same content over and over again. The more you see, the more likely you are to believe.

In Pakistan, there is no legal and judicial tool that directly deals with fake news and propaganda. The only other legal provision available to try someone for producing and propagating fake news is the defamation law. If fake news or propaganda harms someone’s reputation, they can always move the courts of law to seek damages for that. This makes it difficult for the authorities to come up with a clear procedure to take action against those involved in producing and promoting it.

Moving on in 2020, it is imperative fake news is treated as a collective issue beyond regulation and penalization. The only way ahead is becoming better, intelligent, and critical consumers of information.

All journalists and their editors should now understand the risks of legitimizing a rumour and spreading it further than it might have otherwise travelled, particularly in newsrooms developing misinformation as a ‘beat’ in its own right.

Media houses should come together to develop a single platform to debunk fake news that they all collaborate/coordinate on. Besides more accuracy in reporting, organisations need to show more accountability/transparency when they are updating developing stories on their websites (i.e. a statement of the changes that were made to the story and when, and a track of when the story was first published and when it was last edited).

Journalists on social media who inadvertently share something false should not delete and try to ignore it but inform their audience of the fact that it was fake. Most importantly, however, is having a government that actually supports a strong independent press as opposed to undermining/vilifying/censoring it.

The government, too, must introduce digital literacy trainings across departments. It happens to the best of us, afterall.



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