Deadly misinformation

Published September 26, 2021

THE distinction between ‘fake’ and ‘authentic’ news is now a concept impossible to escape. In an unprecedentedly hooked-up world, everyone knows the news of the day. But what to trust and what not to trust — there’s the rub. Even as the internet generation comes fully into its own, the world has watched while unverified ‘news’ has caused unforgiveable mischief ranging from rumour-mongering (the surmised plots behind the 9/11 attacks come to mind), to the spread of hateful ideologies (such as notions of white supremacy that proliferate in online echo chambers), to planet-endangering misinformation (including conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccines that continue to confuse, or climate change), and everything in between. This is precisely why it is of seminal importance for news consumers to be intelligent and aware; to be fully cognisant of the fact that when the world lies at our fingertips, it also takes the touch of just one fingertip to upload for a potentially worldwide audience anything that may take one’s fancy — good or bad or ludicrous. In a praiseworthy effort to address exactly this, last year the All Pakistan Newspaper Society declared Sept 25 as National Newspaper Readership Day, reminding news consumers in Pakistan that the charms and ease of social media notwithstanding, it is newspapers that can be fully relied on for exactitude because of the extensive process of fact-checking, cross-checking and unquestionable verification that goes into the process of production. Newspapers are the Fourth Estate that not only demand accountability and truth from power, but also have over the centuries developed into a model that offers itself up for accountability through the fact of being a permanent record — as opposed to the ephemeral nature of online content, be it on ‘news’ sites, or social media sites whose messages can potentially spread nationally or globally like wildfire.

That said, the newspaper model must also look within and adjust in the face of contemporary realities. The World Association of Newspaper and News Publishers recognises as a ‘definite’ newspaper — as opposed to newsletters — The Relation of Strasbourg, dating back to 1609. What is published for the permanent record after extensive verification can unavoidably not compete with the immediacy of the internet — but its value is contained in precisely this verification process. The centuries-old model of immediate news may have become outdated, but newspapers can provide unmatchable context and meaning. Trustworthiness and verification will always trump immediacy.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2021

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