“The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.” — 1984, George Orwell.

And then came Trump… or did he? Journalists all over the world hold their heads in despair, some even in shame. We are all tarred now with the ‘fake news’ brush, fingers point at traditional/mass media and the verdict is that we are all guilty. We’ve apparently eroded the confidence of our audiences by taking sides and peddling lies, and we have damaged democracy in the process.

The fact is, journalists are easy scapegoats in societies enamoured of their new social media friends, who aren’t quite ready to accept their part in propagating what we have come to call ‘fake news’. Who hasn’t shared, liked and praised stories, memes or pictures without fact-checking them, just because they came from someone familiar, even if vaguely so?

But none of that absolves the professionals of responsibility. Let’s be honest: most newsrooms at the turn of the century decided to embrace and promote social media, first through blogging and citizen journalism, and then by actively incorporating it as one of their streams — all the while deluding themselves that they would be able to influence and moderate the information on these platforms.

Vile content was, and still is, posted as audience opinions, just below main news. Lies, aspersions and a host of inaccuracies still creep in, despite filters, algorithms and pretensions of control.

In an era when the line between deliberate disinformation and news challenging dominant narratives has been blurred to suit the interests of the powerful, how can journalists and readers fight back? How do we repair the damage that has already been done?

‘YOU ARE FAKE NEWS’

In January 2017, the 45th president of the United States of America was being inaugurated in front of a crowd that — let’s say — wasn’t as large as expected. The live TV images spoke for themselves. The new president’s press secretary swiftly declared this was the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration (…) on the globe.” Challenged about her blatant lie, her response was truly Orwellian. She said her views were “alternative facts.”

Interestingly, Trump rose to power, aided by a group of youngsters from the obscure Macedonian town of Veles, whose motive was only profit. Their only interest in American politics was its potential to enrich them, by pulling in big audiences to their Facebook posts and the accompanying advertising windfall.

A Trump supporter protests the recent US election results | AFP
A Trump supporter protests the recent US election results | AFP

According to the BBC, Buzzfeed’s media editor Craig Silverman found that, at the time of Trump’s presidential campaign, there were close to 150 newly created websites spreading false news about his rival Hillary Clinton and aiding Donald Trump, many of which were registered in Veles. The hugely popular slogan at Trump election rallies in 2016 ‘Lock her [Hillary] up’ was based on fake news about her supposedly criminal conduct on one such site.

With the rapid spread of this ‘fake news’ on all social media platforms, and on some mainstream media outlets as well, Trump happily appropriated the term and used it effectively throughout his presidency. But for him and his team, ‘fake news’ was everything and everyone who did not paint a rosy view of his presidency.

Entering truly dystopian territory, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told an astonished Chuck Todd of NBC, “Truth isn’t truth!” And to complete the Orwellian scenario, Trump gave a speech in July 2018, where he said: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Like Orwell warns in 1984, once you are told “to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears”, you can expect total alienation.

The ‘alienated’ assaulted the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, provoked by Trump’s ‘alternative facts’, in a reminder of our very own 2014 ‘D’ Chowk dharna. Trump claimed to have won the November 2020 presidential election. Official data shows Joe Biden got seven million votes more than Trump, giving him 51 percent of the vote, and 306 seats of the US Electoral College.

But these ‘alternative facts’ resulted in five dead, dozens arrested; lawmakers’ and their aides’ children terrorised in the crèche inside the Capitol and the US legislature besieged by an inflamed mob. A recent Reuter/Ipsos poll showed 68 percent of Republican voters still believe the election was rigged, which means a whopping 50 million Americans have no faith in their democracy anymore.

AN OLD TACTIC

Trump did not invent fake news. It has been a constant throughout history.

Emperor Octavian ran a successful smear propaganda against Marc Antony who was, until then, the most admired general of the Roman army. Octavian printed some of his misrepresentations of Antony on coins for maximum exposure, putting into question the general’s loyalty to Rome. Another Roman emperor, Nero, cunningly accused Christians of being responsible for the great fire of Rome in 64AD, leading to their being scapegoated for centuries after.

But never has the truth been more twisted and embellished than in times of conflict. There are many examples of wartime propaganda lies. In 1898, a massive explosion sank the battleship USS Maine in Cuba’s Havana harbour, killing 260 American crew members. The US accused Spain of being behind the massacre and declared a war that was won easily in less than three months, gaining control of many territories.

In those months, the Hearst- and Pulitzer-owned press outlets in the US presented the Spaniards as monsters who fed their prisoners to the sharks and cut the ears of the Cubans. In 1976, American naval investigators concluded that the Maine explosion was actually caused by a fire that ignited its ammunition stocks, not by a Spanish act of sabotage.

Fake news has been a constant throughout history. Emperor Octavian ran a successful smear propaganda against Marc Antony who was, until then, the most admired general of the Roman army. Octavian printed some of his misrepresentations of Antony on coins for maximum exposure, putting into question the general´s loyalty to Rome.

Who has read even a little about World War II and not heard of Goebbels’ name, his work and words: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Some of us still remember the Radio Pakistan bulletin on December 16, 1971. The newsreader said: “After an agreement between local commanders, ceasefire was declared in East Pakistan.” But, turning the dial on to the BBC frequency, we learnt that the Pakistan Army had, in fact, surrendered to Indian troops. Only the day before, it seems, banner headlines in Pakistani papers had screamed the Eastern Military Commander Lt Gen Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi’s statement that Indian tanks would have to go over his dead body to enter Dhaka.

THE RECENT PAST

An ad in Malaysia urges people not to spread fake news | AFP
An ad in Malaysia urges people not to spread fake news | AFP

Fast forward to February 14, 2003, when UN Chief Weapons Inspector to Iraq, Hans Blix, reported back to the Security Council that his group had not “found any such weapons [of mass destruction], only a small number of empty chemical munitions.”

Disregarding Blix’s report and citing the existence of dangerous stockpiles of those weapons as a pretext for his actions, the US president, George W Bush, supported by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, nevertheless declared war on Iraq on March 20, 2003. The events of September 11, 2001 had shaken the US and its allies. They declared a ‘war on terror’, a term which served as a blanket justification for just about any course of action they would take.

The US media didn’t scrutinise the conduct of Bush for starting a war that the UN has since declared illegal several times over. When the BBC attempted to question Prime Minister Tony Blair’s grounds to justify the war, it was boxed into a corner by the Labour government on a technicality, rather than the substance of its report that the war dossier had been ‘sexed up’. Tragically, the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan’s source, an official chemical weapons expert and scientist Dr David Kelly, allegedly committed suicide after coming under government pressure. BBC Chairman Gavyn Davis and Director General Greg Dyke both lost their jobs as a consequence and the BBC has since struggled to assert, unapologetically, its editorial independence.

On March 11, 2004, a series of coordinated bombings in the commuter train system of Spain’s capital Madrid left 193 people dead and around 2,000 injured. The Spanish mainstream media, initially and without exception, regurgitated the prime minister’s claim that the terror bombings were carried out by the Basque separatist group ETA, which had executed a bloody campaign on Spanish security forces mainly (but not exclusively) since the 1970s, and most papers led with the headline: “ETA massacre in Madrid.”

Meanwhile, all along, police investigations had pointed in the direction of Al Qaeda — who later claimed responsibility — even citing irrefutable evidence of the presence of members of one of its cells in the vicinity of the train stations that morning. In fact, the bombings were a reaction to Spain’s decision (overwhelmingly opposed by Spaniards) to deploy troops to Iraq, a fact the government did not want to acknowledge three days before a general election.

“Tell the truth” demonstrations erupted across the country. Three days later, the Popular Party lost the elections, handing a surprise victory to the socialists of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Did the media enhance or diminish democracy that day? We can only say that the media certainly had an impact on the attitude and perception of a large number of Spaniards, who wanted accountability for what they perceived as deception.

MAKING BREXIT HAPPEN

In the lead-up to the 2016 referendum in the UK, in which the country decided by a wafer-thin majority to leave the EU, the Leave campaign deployed lies to win its argument.

For example, the Campaign run by Dominic Cummings (later Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s key adviser) came up with the slogan — plastered on campaign buses — ‘£350m a week for NHS’, implying that, in a post-Brexit Britain free of EU ‘control’, there would be an additional 350 million pounds a week to support the resource-starved National Health Service.

Let alone the additional allocation to NHS, the amount was nowhere near what the EU exit would have delivered in savings. It was also not offset against the costs of Brexit, which would have yielded a negative figure. But the media reported the claim as fact and brought the other side, Remain, to refute it, thus suggesting the two sides were on par.

A protester holds an ‘I am not fake news’ sign | AFP
A protester holds an ‘I am not fake news’ sign | AFP

After the referendum, Cummings was asked in a BBC Newsnight interview if he knew his slogan was not true. “I was given the task of winning the Referendum. Didn’t I win?” was his smug response. The media had failed the people again by demanding the Remain side find ways to refute blatant lies that news anchors should have never given a pass as valid facts in the first place.

So, fake news, or what the soviets called dezinformatsiya, has always been present, impacting our views and societies in different ways, and has always been a dangerous weapon in the hands of ruthless autocrats and manipulative populists.

When fake news morphs into the much-hyped information wars, or what our national security experts call Fifth Generation Warfare (5GW), and they themselves jump into it, at least in our domestic context, it serves only to erode democracy, hinder the mainstream media and the diversity it can reflect, and silence dissent. The external element of it and its efficacy as a tool of national security is not known.

FAKE NEWS AND THE INTERNET

The internet has given fake news an unprecedented scope and outreach that transcends borders and socio-economic groups. It potentially brings a global audience to the smartphones in our palms in seconds and pretty much for free. Social media has enabled ‘fake news’ in ways nobody predicted.

For a long time, social media moguls were more interested in enriching themselves rather than in tackling the devil in their platforms. But things may be changing.

While traditional media (CNN, NBC, BBC etc) edit out information for being ‘antidemocratic’, and innumerable fact-checking websites have sprouted all over the world to guard the truth (maldita.es, Fact Check, Alt News etc), Twitter, Facebook and other platforms are now also scrambling to assert damage control, to “clear” their platforms of fake news.

In 2019, Twitter and Facebook closed thousands of accounts alleging they were run by our military’s PR wing. Some of these handles may have been targeting the ‘enemy’ across the borders, but many were also carrying out sustained malicious campaigns against opposition parties and dissenting citizens. In 2016, Nawaz Sharif was vilified for calling for measures that Pakistan eventually rolled out at FATF (Financial Action Task Force) gunpoint four years later. Both the then prime minister and this paper — because it broke the story — were castigated by such accounts on social media, in a sustained, vile campaign.

Whereas Pakistan’s entry into 5GW via social media sites on the internet is a relatively recent phenomenon, investigations by the EU DisinfoLab showed the Indians have been neck deep in it for at least 15 years. The EU DisinfoLab is an independent non-profit organisation focused on tackling sophisticated disinformation campaigns targeting the EU, its member states, core institutions and core values. The non-profit published its findings in two reports, in 2019 and in December 2020.

EU DISINFOLAB

A screenshot of a fake news story picked up by TV channel CNN-News18 and its website in India | Dawn.com
A screenshot of a fake news story picked up by TV channel CNN-News18 and its website in India | Dawn.com

In their stories, appearing simultaneously in December last year, Ramsha Jahangir (Dawn) and Abid Hussain and Shruti Menon (BBC online), quoted the EU DisinfoLab research report which traced over 750 fake media to a Delhi-based holding company, the Srivastava Group (SG).

The Brussels-based group said it was unable to uncover direct evidence of a link between the Indian government and this elaborate operation. Nevertheless, the network, spread over 116 countries, carried out a global disinformation campaign to serve Indian interests by creating ‘fake news’ against Pakistan (and in some cases China) and then by distributing it.

Democracy may already have been irreparably damaged by the collusion of the Goswamis of the media world with the Trumps, the Bolsonaros and the Modis that come to power or who, like the Cummings and the Steve Bannons of the world, enable others of their ilk to achieve power by spewing blatant lies that large swathes of people happily believe.

“It is the largest network we have exposed,” Alexandre Alaphilippe, executive director of EU DisinfoLab told the BBC. The network was designed primarily to “discredit Pakistan internationally” and influence decision-making at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and European Parliament, BBC said, quoting the EU DisinfoLab.

Apart from more than 750 fake media and over 550 website domain names, SG also directly controlled in excess of 10 NGOs accredited to the UN Human Rights Council. The fake media were mostly found in Brussels and Geneva. The group had ‘resurrected’ defunct media, NGOs, and even a dead individual in one case, as part of its propaganda drive, as well as created innumerable fake journalists.

According to the BBC, the EU DisinfoLab partially exposed the network in 2019 but now says the operation is much larger and more resilient than it first suspected. It relies heavily on amplifying content produced on fake media outlets with the help of the Asian News International (ANI) — India’s largest wire service (Text and TV) and a key focus of the investigation. Those who have experience of covering India and its various undercurrents say that, if ANI were hand-in-glove with SG in the campaign, then a link to the Indian security establishment would also be found if properly probed in India.

Titled Indian Chronicles, the EU DisinfoLab report says the operation targeted members of the European Parliament and the United Nations — “raising questions about how much EU and UN staff knew about SG’s activities, and whether they could have done more to counter those activities, especially after the 2019 report.”

The report cited dozens of specific examples where ANI picked up content from a fake news outlet and circulated it widely.

For its part, on its corporate website, the Delhi-based SG claims ownership of just three media entities in India but makes no mention of any of the sites, NGOs and people that the EU watchdog cites in its report. It also says its mission is to preserve the natural systems on which all life depends; to create and publish content that educates, informs and inspires; and to build healthier lives.

Obviously, nowhere does it say it runs a sophisticated global disinformation machine and campaigns to further India’s foreign and security policy goals. Some of Delhi’s senior journalists we asked said they had never heard of SG!

INDIA’S PAKISTAN OBSESSION

— Based on EU DisinfoLab’s ‘Indian Chronicles: Executive Summary’
— Based on EU DisinfoLab’s ‘Indian Chronicles: Executive Summary’

Disinformation against Pakistan seems like a sizable industry in India. The Pakistan obsession is such that sections of the Indian media do not even shy away from inventing news of trouble and turmoil in Pakistan.

Last December, when senior officers of the Sindh Police protested against the forced removal of their chief from his Karachi home by Rangers and intelligence officials — so he could be persuaded to order the arrest of PMLN MNA and Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s husband Capt Mohammad Safdar — some in the Indian media went to town with fake news.

Even fake Sindh Police handles were created on Twitter to echo the TV channels’ fake news of a ‘civil war’ like situation in Karachi, with reports of shootouts and mounting casualties in street-fighting between the police on the one side, and the paramilitary Rangers and the army on the other.

Like certain Pakistani anchors’ close ties — even allegiance — to the security establishment and the governing party, a nexus also exists between several high profile Indian journalists and the BJP government and security services.

One was exposed recently when Mumbai Police downloaded chats from the phone of Arnab Goswami, who runs the pro-BJP Republic TV and hosts one of the channel’s prime time news and current affairs programmes. He is known for a shrill and obnoxious anti-Pakistan stance on his channel whenever India’s western neighbour is discussed and, generally, has a distinct pro-BJP slant in his domestic coverage.

His chats with the man who heads the influential ratings agency that decides the volume and, crucially, the price tag, of advertisements on various Indian TV channels by certifying their viewership numbers, were leaked by the Mumbai Police. This happened after the anchor was arrested on criminal charges and his phone was also confiscated and analysed.

The chats demonstrate that he knew of Goswami Indian plan to carry out an air strike against a supposed militant target in Pakistan’s Balakot in 2020, three days ahead of the actual air raid. By sharing this ‘classified’ information, he was attempting to show the ratings agency head how well-connected he was and how well his channel would do/does in covering issues, by getting a head-start via their government sources. His ultimate goal was to manipulate the ratings in his favour.

TRUTH BE TOLD

Democracy may already have been irreparably damaged by the collusion of the Goswamis of the media world with the Trumps, the Bolsonaros and the Modis that come to power or who, like the Cummings and the Steve Bannons of the world, enable others of their ilk to achieve power by spewing blatant lies that large swathes of people happily believe. Facebook and Twitter may have acted against Trump rather late in the day and, some critics say, inappropriately. But how do we, as professionals, make sure we curtail misinformation without inhibiting the diversity of views?

The answer is by going back to the basics: find the truth, verify facts, cleanse content of bias; challenge the lie that defies the data (‘vaccines don’t prevent disease and deaths’), challenge the blatant implausibility (‘the earth is flat!’) and then report. Invite views but don’t let inaccuracies fly freely, no matter where they are coming from.

It may sound simple and almost naive because, if truth be told, we journalists don’t exist in a vacuum. We, too, belong to societies where profit has overtaken morality. We, too, are workers with families to feed. The owners of media empires that employ us have close ties to the same powers that, on occasion, benefit from fake news and misinformation.

Looking back at the past few years, however, it seems obvious that far too many journalists were complicit in creating parallel universes, with parallel realities. Republic TV has been mentioned as one of the few most obvious examples in India. Fox News jumps to our mind in the US; but every country has its ‘Fox’ news. And some more than one. Pakistan is no different.

And if the media has damaged democracy, so has inexplicably nearly half the global populace. Despite having more access than ever to reliable information, more opportunities than ever to vote in better governments, it continues to exercise choices reflecting swallowed-digested fake news and false narratives, by electing despicable charlatans.

The challenge facing democratic, pluralistic societies is how to bring them back from the dark side into a new era of enlightenment, where truth truly matters to all.

Carmen Gonzalez is a former BBC and Instagram Editor. Abbas Nasir is a former BBC executive and past Editor of Dawn

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 31st, 2021

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