Opinion and Editorial

Pakistan's fake news problem is hurting journalism

Waqar Mustafa (Media Track)
Filed on January 19, 2020 | Last updated on January 19, 2020 at 10.29 pm

'Fake news' spreads rapidly because people don't raise questions on news, especially if it is published in a newspaper.

Last week, celebrated Pakistani comedian Amanullah's daughter tweeted a picture of her ailing father lying on a hospital bed, and asked netizens to pray for his early recovery.

Following the post, rumours went abuzz about the actor's death. A number of social media sites published it too without checking the facts. His daughter Zergoon eventually had to post a video to dispel rumours. "People should at least confirm before posting such fake news and causing pain and heartbreak to the family," she said.

She was only a tweet away and yet nobody bothered to check with her before publishing fake news about her father's death.

In a recent survey, journalists identified social media as the hotbed of false information, noting that the increasing crisis of confidence in journalism is fuelling the rise of fake news.

Titled Sifting truth from lies in the age of fake news, the study examines the extent of fact-checking practised in Pakistan's newsrooms. Based on the experiences of 152 journalists and activists, who participated in the survey conducted by the Digital Rights Foundation, the report found that more than 88 per cent respondents identified social media platforms as the least worthy source of information, WhatsApp topping among them. Facebook-owned WhatsApp allows users to send text messages and voice messages, make voice and video calls, and share images and documents and other social media platforms. On its own, the social media platform has run media campaigns for public awareness asking consumers to act wisely when sharing news.

The report found that journalists are not comfortable using the term 'fake news' to describe news that is not true as it has increasingly been used in Twitter campaigns for partisan propaganda and discrediting credible journalism. It also found that politically contentious topics and censorship encouraged the spread of falsehoods online. Frequent accusations of 'fake news' have led to an increase in interest in fact-checking in newsrooms. Fake news spread on Twitter via seemingly fake, hyper-nationalist accounts.

It also highlighted the severe dearth of media literacy training in Pakistan. According to Ramsha Jahangir, the author of the study, "Old images, videos are packaged as new, doctored screenshots of tickers go viral and anything with a kernel of truth is used out of context." This is not 'fake news'. We are all victims of information disorder," she says.

Digital Rights Foundation Executive Director Nighat Dad sees a complex set of deep-rooted ideological, cultural and political issues impacting the 'fake news' phenomenon in the digital platforms, which demonstrates that this isn't just a tech or media literacy problem, but one that needs to be examined from a socio-psychological perspective. Lack of awareness among the public and journalists is an impediment to fighting 'fake news' on digital platforms.

The problem gets more acute when print and electronic media buys into whatever is on the social media without any verification. 'Fake news' spreads rapidly because people don't raise questions on news, especially if it is published in a newspaper.

Coalition for Women in Journalism Global Coordinator Luavut Zahid says: "Clickbait travels faster and lives longer."

"We have seen examples of hoaxes or misinformation spreading like wildfire but clarifications don't see the same kind of popularity. This is why it's important to verify news before it is released. Journalists are gatekeepers who stop bad information, so there's no excuse for being the catalyst that allows it to spread," she said.

"The race towards breaking news first has resulted in many releasing information before it has been confirmed. This is just bad journalism," she said. "Don't chase breaking news, chase good journalism," she said.

Back to basics, the established values of our craft. The first core principle of journalism we studied is truth and accuracy. We should always strive for accuracy, give the relevant facts and ensure that they have been checked. When we cannot corroborate information, we should say so. If journalists - social, print, digital, electronic - fail to properly verify news they can lead themselves, and their organisations, into disaster.

Waqar Mustafa is a Pakistan-based journalist and commentator

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