Media is considered as one of the the most influential sources of public education and awareness throughout the world. Compared to any other method of communication, mainstream media in Pakistan makes it possible to reach a greater percentage of the population with information in a trice. The advent of variety of media outlets also led to dissemination of often contrasting information by stakeholders resulting in creating mass confusions. Similarly, in instances where state security was involved, delay dissemination of information by the state has often resulted in providing space to militant narratives on social media.
The concept of media literacy was introduced by Marshall McLuhan-a Canadian communication scholar, which mainly refers to a person’s ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create messages across a variety of circumstances. While countering “mis(dis)information” requires media literacy, its significance is rarely acknowledged by general populace. Media literacy principally contributes to limiting the propagation of false information and ensures that individuals have a better understanding of how to react to information or any other development being portrayed by the media from a restricted paradigm. A media-literate populace can effectively control media’s content by limiting consumption of information from propaganda-based sources, resulting in a two-way exchange of information.
There are three stages of media literacy where a person can identify the validity of news or content. The initial phase is simply recognizing the significance of controlling one’s media consumption and limiting time spent watching television and movies, playing video games, and reading other print media. The second level involves developing specialized skills for critical observation, including the ability to evaluate and analyze the contents of the frame as well as its composition and potential omissions. The third step delves further to examine deeper concerns.
The need for media literacy has perhaps gained critical importance with the advent of technological revolution. As technology advanced, communication and information exchange techniques underwent a significant transformation. With the emergence of digital platforms and the social media, communication and information have transcended all boundaries and information is now readily available to everyone. In the 21st century, digital world has also undergone an enormous shift in terms of novel gadgets and their use. Abrupt advancement in media technology, has created a vacuum between people and media itself as platform, where people are not well informed with its uses and significant impacts.
Unfortunately, the existing vacuum is not only affecting the ‘layman’ but is also blurring the narratives of media community, which needs to be well-informed about such kind of threats. While contextualizing Pakistan through the lens of media vacuum discussed above, militants in Pakistan are precariously filling the gap by exploiting the opportunity. Most of the time, the statements released by the militants about government institutions or related to a particular militant activity or attack, are absorbed very seriously by entire media community and the attention, goals or agendas that militants intends is well received.
Similarly, in past few incidents and especially most recent incident of terrorist attack in Chitral, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) exploited media vacuum by spreading false information and influenced a great number of people with their fake narrative even though the state media had not issued any credible news immediately after the attack. Despite of their failure to take over any villages in Chitral, TTP’s disinformation campaign on social media spread wide scale confusion, myths, and conspiracy theories. Additionally, the state’s decision to delay media’s access to cover real-time situation in Chitral offered TTP’s propagandists an open invitation to fill the vacuum by disseminating their false narratives. By the time the state intervened to bridge the information gap, the damage had already been done.
In terms of media literacy, young people are generally more perceptive towards evils of unsupervised and incredible influx of information through varied sources due to frequent use of media platforms. The internet, instant messaging, iPads, mobile devices, computers, emails, and tablets are among the most popular media communication tools. Social media effectively influences how news is consumed online, how news is used and produced. As teenagers are unable to differentiate fake mis(dis)information because they are less likely to verify the information’s source, they are the most impacted demographic among society. Generically, teenagers view the internet and social media as their primary source of information. Majority of youngsters have unrestricted access to all forms of media, particularly social media; which is heavily exploited by militant narratives on the other end. Children and youngsters are vulnerable because they are exposed to an array of violent/ terrorist messages and manipulation without supervision from adults and putting the tags of PG+ (parental guidance) is not sufficient.
Families with limited financial means use social media and internet as an affordable form of entertainment to keep youngsters occupied. Whenever any technology is introduced test and trials are part and parcel to get people educated about that technology but due to the abrupt transformation of technology the same could not be materialized and the interface is left with a big vacuum. Resultantly, media houses, militants and people from various segments of society are filling this gap as per their limited understandings, thus creating perplexity in people’s minds on a holistic level. As people are perpetually confused about the authenticity of news, the extent of its credibility and inability to distinguish it from propaganda, society as a whole has been polarized in terms of existing realities.
Renee Hobbs, an American expert on media literacy adequately contests that just because people can utilize media technology doesn’t mean they are able to properly evaluate the messages in the media. To deal with data they receive through media, they must acquire some specialized understanding. The ability to evaluate media content is a component of media literacy and drastically lacks among Pakistani populace, particularly social media users. In Pakistan, a wholesome effort is required at schools, colleges and on institutional level to groom people so that they are able to easily identify and verify the digital threats. Vacuum that has been created among the public and media due to the advancement in media technology, if not timely filled can become problematic for each class of society (as is seen in the form of manipulating narrative).