Fake news

Syed Ali Zafar
Sunday, Oct 03, 2021

Fake news can have dangerous consequences; this was true even in ancient times when, without print or electronic media, a lie could only spread through word of mouth.

Today, with the advent of social media, where news travels with lightning speed and can reach millions in seconds, the potential of concocted news to not only cause injury to persons, but even unrest and destabilisation in a state is immense. A recent example of such deliberate disinformation to cause harm to Pakistan was the Indian media’s fabricated story that the Pakistan Army was involved in military operations in Afghanistan and assisting the Taliban. Another example was the false news of a possible attack on the New Zealand cricket team which led to cancellation of the tour.

The draft bill moved in the US Senate seeking sanctions against Pakistan is indeed also a result of intentional misinformation. The most ridiculous fake news was the one that the US used regarding Iraq having ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The result was utter destruction.

The Quran directs as follows: “O you who believe! If an evil doer comes to you with a news, verify it, lest you harm a people in ignorance, then be sorry for what you have done.” (Verse 49:6). There is also this beautiful Hadith: “It is enough of a lie, for a man (without verifying) to narrate everything he hears.” (Sahih Muslim, Vol 1, Hadith 7)

It is argued that, notwithstanding the magnitude of the harm, there should be no regulation to tackle the matter of fake news because any such control would be contrary to the fundamental right of freedom of speech and information, and eventually lead to censorship and hurt democracy. The fear is that under the garb of regulating fake news, a government will be able to control the media.

I too believe that the answer does not lie in ‘over-regulation’ as such a law or rule will be counter-productive and will be eventually struck down by the courts as contrary to the constitution.

However, the government is also responsible for safeguarding its citizens and protecting national interest. It is not therefore possible to simply do nothing. The solution lies in achieving a correct balance, and managing the menace.

One way in which some countries are successfully attempting to diminish the effect of fake news is to encourage professional bodies as ‘fact checkers’ whose job is to detect fake news. Our government is tech savvy and too needs to encourage Pakistan-based independent ‘fact checkers’, with the objective to inform media houses and the public of the results of the research.

At the same time, any government wanting to deal with fake news in social media, will have to work closely with major players like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc to remove fake news content. For this purpose any rules which are made must be consensus-based and ensure that no power is given to any institution to simply stop the dissemination of information as ‘fake news’ just because the story is not to the liking of a government.

Regarding traditional media, one must remember that the legitimacy of a TV channel or newspaper depends on the authenticity of its news, and once the reputation of any media house is tarnished for repeatedly publishing fake news, people will stop watching the channel or reading the newspaper. It is this risk of ruining one’s reputation and losing business that is a real deterrence against publication of fake news.

However the most effective remedy against false news, on social media particularly, is to strengthen the print media. TV and radio are increasingly struggling to combat accuracy because of the need to give news promptly (truth suffers and the professionalism of a journalist is sacrificed at the altar of the need to be the first to give ‘breaking news’). Often the electronic media is forced to publish internet-based stories only to find that the news is bogus. This causes mass-confusion and gives room to miscreants to continue to advance their illegitimate objects.

But the problem of competing with the speed of social media does not affect written newspapers. People turn (and in the future will increasingly do so) to print media to check the authenticity of stories appearing on social media, media channels and even tabloids. The government should trust media houses and maintain a mutual relationship with them, which will ultimately expose inaccuracy and falsehood. At the same time, the r respected newspapers of the country have to strengthen their own professionalism, regulations and policies of verification and self-restraint, to become even more relevant. Only the prestigious media houses will survive.

Finally no campaign, laws or regulations against fake news can be successful, until the public becomes discerning enough to “shift the chaff from the grain” and judge what is true or false. There is a conversation reported about Socrates with someone which runs as follows: “Someone approached Socrates and sought permission to tell him what a member of a committee had said about him. Socrates said, ‘First let me know if it will benefit me?’ The talebearer replied, ‘No, it would not benefit you’. Socrates then asked, ‘Will it benefit you?’ The talebearer responded, ‘No. It will not benefit me’. Socrates then questioned, ‘Will it benefit the community?’ The talebearer replied, ‘No. It will not benefit the community’. Socrates turned his back from the talebearer and said ‘In that case I am not interested in knowing what the gentleman had said about me’, and then walked away.”

I would earnestly believe that this kind of attitude has to be adopted generally by the people of Pakistan and particularly by parliamentarians, elites and those influential who are gossip prone. The people will follow their leaders’ behaviour.

The writer is a practising advocate of the Supreme Court, a current senator and chairman of theSenate Standing Committee on Law and Justice.

Email: ali@mandviwallaandzafar. com

Twitter: syedalizafar1