Quest for truth – Zubeida Mustafa

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IN media parlance what would the Bahria Town Karachi incident that took place on Sunday, June 6 be called? It was not fake news, considering that a large number of protesters and the police were involved and some violence also occurred that day on Super Highway. But the way the facts were twisted by a section of the media, both social and mainstream, one would certainly call it a case of misreporting.

The impression was sought to be created that the protesters — including various civil society groups and people who have been struggling to save their ancestral lands from the avarice of the land grabbers — resorted to violence and arson. But from the accounts of those present on the scene (I spoke to Sheema Kermani of Tehreek-i-Niswan and Khuda Dino Shah from the Indigenous Peoples) an altogether different picture emerges: it was clearly a false flag operation to vilify the protesters and spread dissension among the diverse ethnic groups that constitute Sindh’s population.

The truth is that this is nothing new. Efforts to subvert the true picture have always existed. What has changed is the scale and speed at which news circulates. The advent of the social media has virtually freed information from editorial intervention. This makes the reader/viewer/listener vulnerable to false information. And how devastating this can be is absolutely stunning.

Others prefer to label this phenomenon ‘misinformation’ or ‘disinformation’, or, simply, ‘myths’. In my days of active journalism such news was ‘planted’ invariably by the powers that be. When Noam Chomsky wrote about this issue he termed it as ‘propaganda’ which was a popular term during World War II as it was almost as effective a tool of war as weapons that destroyed human life. Though known by different names the phenomenon of deception and deliberately misleading readers/viewers/listeners has existed ever since modes of mass communication came into being for news and messages to immediately reach people in massive numbers.

News travels quickly and without any editorial checks.

New devices and portable technology have made the transmission of news an operation fraught with potential risks. News travels without any editorial checks and to such huge numbers that the damage when it is done is almost irreversible.

To give an example, there are fake stories doing the rounds on WhatsApp and Facebook, and sometimes on TV channels as well, about the coronavirus vaccine. Science celebrities are wrongly quoted as warning the people not to get themselves vaccinated as the consequences could be lethal. With low levels of education and lack of awareness, it is not surprising that a large number of people end up believing this misleading information instead of trying to verify the facts, and are hesitant to get themselves vaccinated. Sections of the mainstream media itself are often found lacking in their role as a link between the government and the people in terms of disseminating information that is factual, or correcting misconceptions.

This kind of reporting — if it can be described as such — spreads confusion and instability. People do not know what to believe and what not to believe. They are confused and this causes anxiety and even paranoia.

In fact, the damage that this phenomenon has caused to mental health, as it is now emerging, is a major destabilising factor in our environment. For years, health professionals have been warning about the rise of mental illness in the country. The general deficit of trust that this leads to has resulted in a breakdown of discipline which is so evident in our national life.

We have lived in this atmosphere of falsehood and chicanery for ages. Not that we have not struggled against it and tried to neutralise its impact. But clearly the perils of ‘fake news’ are growing. This should not be allowed to go on. How? By spreading awareness and reducing the craving for sensationalism by involving non-media institutions such as universities and students groups in a campaign against fake news. It is true that some political thinkers and analysts have tried to create awareness about this bombardment of misinformation and suggested ways and means to combat it. But a concerted effort on this front is lacking.

Last week, at an HRCP webinar, a speaker suggested that the commission should set up a website to verify any news that is doing the rounds and has the potential of being fake. This is a commendable and doable recommendation as the HRCP has traditionally investigated incidents related to human rights in order to verify them. The website could just carry the verified report without any editorial comments. People hungry for truth will find it there as well as peace of mind because the HRCP carries credibility. It would a positive step towards lessening the impact of fake news.

www.zubeidamustafa.com

Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2021