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Journalism in the ‘disinformation age’

We are fighting a losing battle in a space that remains beyond editorial control: the internet.
Updated 06 Dec, 2017 11:25pm

The challenge journalists face today is immense.

In the past, we were responsible for sifting the truth from lies. Today, due to information overload, it is the news consumer’s job to ‘curate’ what they believe is true from the thousands of sources they have access to – and this is not an easy task.

In a survey conducted on Dawn.com this year, 57.5 per cent of 1,705 respondents felt fake news was a major problem in Pakistan.

Additionally, 44.8pc said they had been tricked into believing a fake news story was true, while a further 34.3pc said they believed they may have been tricked.

A total of 29.9pc of respondents said they had shared fake news believing it was true.

Where does the blame lie? When asked which medium carried ‘a lot of fake news’, social media was ranked highest by far, with 87.2pc of the respondents in agreement. This was followed by websites (excluding social media) at 50.3pc, TV at 26.2pc and print at 14pc. While non-scientific, this snapshot is telling, and reflective of a global trend.

FAKE NEWS, A REALITY

The ‘fake news’ phenomenon exists in two forms. One is the creation of news content that is built off a lie, with the intent to deceive. The other is the use of the term as a label to attack and discredit mainstream media or political opponents; we have Team Trump and the US elections to thank for that.

While the use of the ‘fake news’ label as a means to attacking opponents is yet to kick off at the scale it has in the West, the more basic practice is having a daily impact in Pakistan. Fake news ranges from the mundane to issues of national and regional significance that cannot be ignored. To share just a few recent examples:

  1. The alert that wasn’t.
    The alert that wasn’t.

    News attributed to the ISPR spreads on WhatsApp, warning that suicide bombers plan to attack large public venues in Karachi and Hyderabad. The alert is distributed/disseminated by thousands, causing a panic. But the ISPR never sent out such an alert. It was fake. The ISPR responds, saying: “There are fake messages being circulated on social media attributing to Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), conveying fake threat warnings or emergency contact numbers. It is clarified that ISPR communicates only through official website/accounts. Nothing is shared through WhatsApp. All are suggested not to circulate fake messages without cross-checking it on official ISPR website/accounts.”

  2. National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq is about to file a complaint against Justice Asif Saeed Khosa in the Supreme Judicial Council – or so it is believed, as a copy of the document is circulating online. Traditional media picks up on this and soon the document is the story of the day. Except the document is missing a vital page and bears no signatures, and the NA denies any such reference has been filed. The information is out there though, and what goes viral is the complaint, not the later investigation and denial.

  3. A Dubai-based newspaper publishes a news report alleging that former COAS Raheel Sharif has been stopped at a Saudi airport. It is widely read and shared in Pakistan, but, as it turns out, the news is fake.

Someone created a URL to the story that looked identical to the newspaper’s own URLs, with just one letter changed, thus leading to a completely different site that hosted the fake story dressed up as authentic.

The fake news examples cited above range from simple-to-execute (sending a WhatsApp message), to difficult (faking an official document) to complex and elaborate (creating a fake replica site to host a fake story). All of the above and, indeed, most examples of fake news in Pakistan are rooted in the internet, which is why Dawn.com survey respondents marked social media and websites as most untrustworthy.

In just one sense, this is good news: the value of traditional media as a gatekeeper of information is apparent. In all other ways, this is bad, and part of the blame for this situation rests with the journalist community. We have constantly been late to acknowledge the fact that what happens online greatly shapes reality today, even in Pakistan, where internet penetration ranges at a very low 15-20pc of the population.

We resist learning the rules that govern online ‘content’. In fact, the very word ‘content’ is looked down upon, lending to our denial of the fact that terms such as ‘news’, ‘feature’, ‘analysis’ and ‘opinion’ have lost their meaning in a vast universe of information. And when the audience doesn’t understand and doesn’t respond as expected, we shift blame to the audience’s lack of intelligence and/or good taste.

Snobbery is one part of our undoing, yet we stand by it while fading to irrelevance, beaten out by Snapchat, Ludo Star and Netflix, because, as already established, our ‘content’ competes for limited attention, making everything the competition. And this is just as true for Dawn as it is for The New York Times and the BBC.

With journalists falling two steps behind, we are losing out to those forces who would like to distort the truth for their own purposes. The nature of the internet lends to a post-truth world. Any user can create fake news cheaply, and spread it at a speed and scale that can match and often surpass news generated by traditional media. Due to the volume and scale online, it is also next to impossible to regulate fake news, except that generated by legacy news organisations that can be easily identified and held accountable.

In Pakistan, instead of the internet having a ‘democratising effect’ we have seen a manifold increase in power to the state through censorship, surveillance, manipulation of information and the spread of lies to maintain the status quo.

Dawn has experienced this directly over the last year after publishing a scoop by Cyril Almeida that exposed a deep civil-military rift. Aside from attacks from all sides in the mainstream, a series of coordinated attack campaigns were run on social media. The first such campaign framed the report as ‘fake news’.

This narrative was forced to shift, however, after it became hard to claim the report was fake once accountability was demanded for those who had leaked the news. The fallback was to frame Dawn as an ‘anti-Pakistan, India-loving’ establishment.

Perhaps worst of all, instead of a ‘global village’ we have ‘internet bubbles’ of like-minded users who will fight anything and anyone against their views. The loudest voice or the one the majority agrees with defines the truth. Anything uncomfortable is rejected.

In a society as fragmented as Pakistan, these bubbles range from PTI supporters harassing Twitter users critical of their party and leader to banned outfits spreading sectarian hate on Facebook. At all times, members of the bubble assume their reality is the ‘truth’. And so we have a steady growth in ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’.

FIGHTING FAKE NEWS

Thankfully we have transitioned to a point where the problem is a globally recognised issue. With enough fake news, and the consequences of being duped piling up, the public will return to the sources they can trust. This is where an institution like Dawn is so vital. Equilibrium will be restored when access to infinite content is balanced off with relying on a trusted voice that contextualises information and reduces it to what is important and true.

Dawn.com’s role is to be that voice on a global level.

Those who attack this organisation for “bringing a bad name to Pakistan” have only one point correct in their infantile arguments: Dawn.com defines Pakistan and gives shape to what is happening in the country for many. Millions of visitors rely on the site for their news, and a majority (sometimes as high as 70pc) are visitors from outside of Pakistan.

This raises many challenges and greatly increases the weight of responsibility on every staffer in terms of ensuring that mistakes or fake news do not find space on the site, and, resultantly, avoiding the label of ‘fake news’ being applied to Dawn.

One key issue is that of content permanence. TV is ephemeral. Print lasts a day or two before being tossed or placed into archives that are hard to access and browse. What goes online lasts forever, and is always one search away. Each mistake lasts forever too; even if a correction is run and edits made, readers will have created their own archive of the misstep. A screenshot takes one swipe. And this applies not only to original content being created by the team of online journalists, but to all print and TV content that comes online.

In this way, all journalists are working for the web, and are doing so without being aware of it or aware of the dynamics that come into play once their stories come online. As just one example, many websites rely on citing Dawn.com to build their reports, with some outright copy-pasting. When a mistake is made, it travels across these sites too, greatly amplifying a mistake and making it impossible to correct.

This is the reality we live in; turbulent, troubling and dark for truth-tellers. But the battle to counter fake news will continue. The most pressing need is for media groups and journalists to embrace the internet fully; to take ownership of their work in this space; to avoid treating it as enemy territory or dismiss it as inconsequential.

Beyond that, we need only keep doing what we have been doing all along. Report the truth, however unpopular or uncomfortable. Let this era of fake news play itself out. This stage will be short-lived. Hopefully.


The writer is editor of Dawn.com


This story is part of a series of 16 special reports under the banner of '70 years of Pakistan and Dawn’. Read the report here.