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Fake news

January 28, 2018

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BILAWAL Bhutto this week made a speech at Davos in which he talked about the dangers of ‘fake news’ in Pakistan, a phenomenon that has been the cause of much media debate since Donald Trump was elected US president in 2016. In the case of the United States, much of the fake news has been manufactured in Russia and disseminated on Facebook and Twitter, and is said to have swayed the election in favour of Trump.

According to Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus in the Guardian, Sergei P. Rastorguev, a Russian military analyst, wrote in 1998 that “one of the most effective weapons in modern conflict was information — or more accurately, disinformation”. It plays into the larger concept of cyberwar, which is meant to psychologically manipulate people to weaken a country from within, and to let down its guard. The strategy goes like this: “First, people’s trust in one another is broken down. Then comes fear, followed by hatred, and finally, at some point, shots are fired.”

In Davos, Bhutto’s angle on fake news was that big businesses in Pakistan have invested in media outlets and are spending huge amounts of money to churn out sensationalist news, distorted, exaggerated, or just false, in order to influence the political scenario. This has resulted in the demonisation of journalists, Bhutto observed, who are instrumental in the fight against dictatorship. But deliberate disinformation is also resulting in the demonisation of political and human rights activists, with rumours spread on news channels of activists committing alleged blasphemy or working on ‘foreign’ agendas.

You just need to swallow it wholesale and pass it on.

Fake news in Pakistan is spread not just on television, but also through social media posts and short, sensationalist texts on WhatsApp that never make it to a reputable newspaper because they are inaccurate and the fact don’t check out. They’re meant to be consumed quickly and sent on to as many people as possible, usually with the added phrase ‘forwarded as received’.

This means that the sender would like the article to be regarded as completely unbiased and fair. You don’t need to think critically about this message because the author of the article and your friend who has sent it to you has already done the critical thinking for you. You just need to swallow it wholesale and pass it on. Meanwhile, forward by forward, byte by byte, rumour becomes accepted fact, fake news becomes truth, and societies inch closer towards chaos instead of order.

Disinformation twists the facts, omitting some, distorting others, in order to affect public opinion. While it purports to appeal to logic, it circumvents logic and manipulates your emotions, evoking anger because of the perceived injustice it claims to uncover. In the case of WhatsApp disinformation, it’s not just the common citizen, but also government officials, politicians, parliamentarians, and anyone else involved with the machinery of authority that receives these messages, discusses them, and carries around these ideas in their minds. This propaganda then influences the decisions these people make, affecting the lives of millions.

There has been a definite upsurge in WhatsApp disinformation in Pakistan over the last year or two. Many of these are fanciful analyses of the political situation; others spread rumours about the wealth of our politicians and leaders. Some talk about the security situation in hot areas like Balochistan or Fata, others talk about the economic situation and the effect of CPEC on Pakistan’s standing in the world.

Take for example a recent article in the Oriental Review by Russian analyst Andrew Korybko, who wrote about the government’s decision to expel Afghan refugees in 30 days as retaliation against Trump’s hostile New Year’s Day tweet against Pakistan. Hardly anyone would have read this article online, but a truncated, anonymous version was circulated through WhatsApp; it emphasised how Islamabad found a creative way to asymmetrically strike back at Washington. “Pakistan could soon rid itself of actual terrorist sleeper cells and societal malcontents who have long overstayed their welcome in the neighbouring country.” It’s easy to see how is meant to stir up hatred and hostility towards not just America, but also the Afghan refugees in this country. How long before “shots are fired” at someone because of these forwards, in our emotionally volatile country?

Governments can use the ‘fake news’ epithet to malign journalists reporting on conflicts like the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, causing all sorts of human rights atrocities to be swept under the carpet. But fake news, despite its name, does have real-world consequences. Recently an American was arrested when he made death threats against CNN, prodded on by Donald Trump’s hostility towards the news outlet. Fake news is the real weapon of today’s info wars. Read those WhatsApp texts carefully and critically, but forward them as received at your peril.

The writer is an author.
Twitter: @binashah

Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2018