August 08, 2022

Staff report


Pakistan’s political leadership is unwilling to legislate on ending disinformation as it is a vital tool for propaganda and silencing opponents, however activists and journalists can render their duty in countering ‘fake news’ through advocacy and sharing more information.

This was stated by speakers in a webinar on the affects of misinformation, disinformation and fake news in narrative-building in Pakistan. The session was moderated by Usama Khilji, Director of Bolo Bhi, with journalist, researcher and Erasmus Mundus scholar, Ramsha Jahangir; activist and Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), Nighat Dad; and senior journalist and YouTuber Matiullah Jan on the panel.

In the discussion, Ramsha Jahangir clarified that what we refer to now as ‘fake news’ is actually disinformation, and what separates it from misinformation is the intention to deliberately spread incorrect news. She further stated that due to the lack of any accountability mechanisms, political parties find it very easy to claim any top trends in their favour while simultaneously distancing themselves from abusive, malicious disinformation campaigns.

‘When we ask political parties as to who is running such campaigns, they say that it is not their responsibility what their volunteers and supporters say online,” she stated. “However, it is these very parties who publicly thank their supporters for helping them reach top trends. When it comes to smear campaigns and abusive hashtags, which involve endless, targeted attacks on individuals and groups, no one ever takes any ownership.”

She suggested that political parties should design a code of conduct, and determine a set of consequences for any online individual or group affiliated with the party who runs such campaigns.

Jahangir also stated that while disinformation is indeed a powerful tool in narrative-building and manipulation, it is also important to address misinformation in Pakistan as it is creating greater polarization and intolerance among people.

“No one deliberately looks for misinformation, it just comes to us on our phones, our social media. And this unregulated information is dangerous as it is leading to a highly politicized and polarized society,” she said. “Now, political discussions with family and friends are practically impossible.”

She further added that there is no one solution to the problem, and all stakeholders – including legislators, legislators, educators, NGOs – need to come to together to counter mis/disinformation. However, she stated that usually governments are unwilling to create such policies as they benefit from mis/disinformation.

Nighat Dad said that targeted disinformation campaigns in Pakistan are run by the powerful elite belonging to political parties or state institutions, and who understand how disinformation can be used to develop political and ideological narratives, often against their opponents or certain individuals and communities.

Previously, it was mostly journalists who were targeted by these disinformation campaigns. Nowadays, we are seeing institutions like our judiciary, as well as activists being targeted through these campaigns, and this is a trend that is continuously gaining momentum,” she posited.

She added that there is a need to challenge the convenience of consuming news through fact-checking tools, which are now becoming increasingly easily available, and that journalists and activists can play a vital role in utilizing these tools to counter mis/disinformation in online spaces.

“We have a dearth of counter-narratives, and the more information we put out there, the better we can beat disinformation,” Dad stated.

She also provided that self-regulation is also important when creating counter-narratives.

“We know that hate thrives on social media, and often media practitioners and social media activists follow the same strategy we see in sensationalist disinformation campaigns even when speaking the truth. If we do not want our leadership to bring in draconian censorship laws in the name of accountability, then we need to responsibly contribute information online.”

Dad also said that it is important to look at disinformation as something which can have harmful effects on the lives and livelihood of targeted individuals and groups offline.

“When there are consistent targeted disinformation campaigns against someone, then it can have real-life consequences. We saw what happened to Matiullah Jan and Asad Toor,” she provided. “We can also see how the sexualized nature of online harassment campaigns against women can have consequences on their home life, their employment. My organization was also targeted in a nearly three-years long campaign to get it shut down because it challenged them.”

When talking about social media in Pakistan, Matiullah Jan termed it a blessing for journalists who were victims of censorship and suppression on mainstream media, and who could not be accommodated in spite of their education, qualifications, skills and experience. However, with regards to the flow of information, especially online, he was of the opinion that the state is directly responsible for half of all disinformation online.

“This is an unfortunate development, and as such private actors and social media activists have a bigger responsibility in not only promoting correct information online but to also expose disinformation peddled by the state,” he said, adding that the best way to defeat disinformation is to inundate social media with even more information. “When confronted with the belief that there is a need to restrict information in order to curb disinformation, I say we are better off having disinformation than having no information at all.”

He also expressed his belief that audiences nowadays find very little difference between professional journalists and citizen journalists, and therefore the latter must now prove themselves as credible sources of information.

“We need to take as much advantage as possible of our education, skills and experience, because we now face competition from users who can provide far more information and in possibly more interesting ways to people,” he said.

Jan also stated that political and strategic power struggles between Pakistan’s polity as well as establishment are majorly behind online disinformation, as is most apparent during election season. He also termed existing laws against defamation and disinformation tools for politicians to victimize their opponents and critics, including journalists.

“We also need to pay focus on abusive language used by political leaders in their speeches,” he said. “When their leaders are freely throwing around words like ‘thief’, ‘thug’, ‘traitor’ and ‘infidel’, keyboard warriors have plenty of motivation to do what they do online. Such speech creates hate and divide among the people, and fake news is just one form of that hate.”


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