Fake news on social media can undermine democracy. Social media is widely praised for fostering democratic discourse. Government representatives frequently emphasize the issue of fake news and how crucial it is for Pakistanis to fight the menace of fake news. The U.S. invasion of Iraq is an example of how this kind of story can cause wars between countries.
The main goal of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., is to bring people from different parts of the world together. However, these sites are also used to spread news and share opinions on a wide range of issues, such as security, political, social, and economic problems.
Pakistan, like the rest of the world, is facing a major threat from fake news. Access to news, political division, manipulation of social media conversations, trust in the news media, health information, and hate speech are all things that fake news has caused or spread.
According to a report by Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD), from 2015 to 2020, the number of Pakistani broadband Internet users went from 17 million to 83 million, which is almost a fourfold increase. The number of mobile broadband users grew the most. Despite a considerable digital divide—Internet penetration is less than 44% of the population—the availability of 3G and 4G mobile Internet has also led to a small but consistent growth in social media use. From 2013 on, political debates on the two biggest social media sites, Facebook and Twitter, became more popular in Pakistan. This followed a trend that was almost identical to the one seen in the United States. MMfD published that nine out of ten Pakistanis currently see disinformation as an issue, and seventy percent of the population thinks Facebook’s platform is utilized most often to propagate misinformation in the nation.
Fake news messages have significantly impacted the public’s opinion of Pakistan’s anti-polio vaccination campaign. In order to discourage parents from vaccinating their children, these misinformation tactics draw on existing vaccine scepticism and common religious or xenophobic stereotypes. In 2019, a fake video about how vaccinations affect children caused hundreds of thousands of Facebook users to interact with false anti-vaccine information. This may have been part of a chain of events that led to the suspension of the country’s anti-polio vaccination campaign. Similarly, press reports and public surveys revealed that COVID-19 misinformation campaigns caused many to believe the coronavirus was a foreign scheme, an overblown danger, or a fake. Such ideas seem to have directly affected people’s attitude about COVID-19 precautions, as seen by the public’s irresponsible behavior before the second coronavirus outbreak in Pakistan. The COVID-19 deception also caused some to avoid medical care and commit violent crimes against health personnel. People were getting the wrong idea from fake messages and conspiracy theories that doctors were working together to make more people die from the coronavirus.
“DisInfo Lab,” a non-governmental organization based in the EU, created a matrix of the Indian misinformation campaign in 2019 and 2020. This campaign relied heavily on fake news sources in social media and mainstream media to lobby international and civil society against Pakistan. Since 2005, the Indian news agency Asian News International (ANI) and the Delhi-based Shrivastava group have contributed to the creation of 256 anti-Pakistan websites that disseminate false information to 65 countries. Reports say that important parts of the larger syndicate were social organizations and humanitarian groups with ties to the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU). Nearly ten UNHRC-affiliated NGOs have been identified as spreading anti-Pakistan propaganda. During the campaign, Dr. Louis B. Sohn, a Harvard professor of International Humanitarian Law, took part in humanitarian conferences about the Baloch separatist movement in 2011.
This cyber misinformation effort, which lasted for over a decade, was reportedly signed in placing Pakistan on the “grey list” of the FATF, which carries accusations of funding violent extremism. Since then, Pakistan has worked hard to change the mix of false ideas about it. The current government of Pakistan has put out a detailed report on how India has lied and been dishonest in international affairs. Still, the United Nations Security Council and its important P5 members haven’t done much to deal with or stop the growing threat. The investigation of the misinformation campaign against Pakistan and the revision of their viewpoint on the topic have likewise largely gone unresolved.
During the collapse of Panjshir on September 6, 2021, Indian Twitter unleashed another Pandora’s Box of a disinformation campaign. While being well aware of the sensitivity of events in Afghanistan and their domestic ramifications for Afghans, as well as regional ramifications for the South Asian region, the Indian mainstream and social media adopted irresponsible desperation methods. Republic TV, India’s most-watched prime-time news network, showed a clip from the video game “Arma-3,” saying it was unique proof of the Pakistan Air Force’s participation in the Panjshir attack. A former Indian army commander went even further and posted a picture of Pakistani celebrities posing in military uniforms for a movie scene as proof that the Pakistani army was in Panjshir. Under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership, these things are happening more often in the Indian media. Motivated by a desire to defame and diplomatically isolate Pakistan by whatever means possible.
Pakistan’s internet content regulatory apparatus is opaque and arbitrary; therefore, it requires online content regulatory rules and anti-disinformation policies to be created in accordance with human rights legislation, and that anti-disinformation limits on speech are implemented openly.
Technical and technological solutions may not be able to eradicate fraudulent messages. It is important to create awareness about the dangers of fake information and how to use the Internet safely. However, digital technology businesses must invest in mitigating the spread of fake news through networks. Fact-checking campaigns have worked with and been helped by social networks, but content moderation choices are often the bottleneck. Organizations must base their content moderation practices on international human rights legislation. The corporations should also strive towards bringing transparency in advertising and account ownership connections, taking action against individuals and accounts engaging in persistent misinformation, and making it easier for users to report disinformation-containing material.
Writer is Assistant Professor in Department of Strategic Studies at Air University in Islamabad, Pakistan. Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Pisa, Italy.