Countering fake news

Syed Raza Ali July 08, 2024
The writer is a CPDI-affiliated rights activist and IAF Germany alumnus. He tweets @TheRazaAliS


Information is a powerful tool that shapes public opinion, drives political discourse, and influences decision-making. However, with the widespread use of the internet and social media, the proliferation of fake news has become a pressing concern worldwide.

The spread of misinformation and disinformation poses significant threats to democracy, social harmony, and even national security. While fake news is not a new phenomenon in the digital era, now with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), it is becoming a far more serious threat. Digital platforms and social media facilitate the rapid spread of fake news as everyone can write and share information without any requirement for verification.

The term ‘fake news’ is often used to combine three types of information disorder: ‘misinformation’, ‘disinformation’ and ‘mal-information’. Misinformation consists of inaccurate information that was not generated with malicious intent while disinformation is based on false information created to harm an individual, group, organisation or state. Mal-information is based on correct information but is used out of context to harm someone.

Persistent false information widely spread through social media networks is shifting public opinion in a significant way towards distrust in facts and authority. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024 underscores this growing concern, ranking fake news and misinformation as the most significant threat in the coming years. The report further explains that misinformation and disinformation may radically disrupt electoral processes in several countries over the next two years. Lack of trust in media and the presence of fake news during and after the electoral process could seriously destabilise newly elected governments risking political unrest, violence and terrorism, and corrosion of democratic processes.

A growing erosion of trust in information can exacerbate existing societal divisions, creating a vicious cycle that fuels polarisation and even likely to trigger civil unrest. The tragic cases of Mashal Khan’s lynching, the burning alive of a tourist in Swat, the mob lynching of a Sri Lankan national in Sialkot and many others stand as stark reminders of the devastating consequences of disinformation i.e. false information created to harm someone. These incidents also highlight the real-world dangers of misinformation, where fabricated stories can incite violence and dismantle social cohesion.

Fake news impacts more or less people from every walk of life. Pakistan is the only country in the world where polio remains endemic. Here, hundreds of families refuse to vaccinate their children due to manipulated information about vaccines. Nearly half of Pakistani women and children under five are malnourished. Many of these people hesitate to take fortified foods meant to combat malnutrition because of fake news claiming these products decrease fertility rates.

Similarly, inaccurate information about health care and disease prevention, such as false information on risks associated with vaccines, may deter people from making healthcare decisions that protect their health, putting them at greater risk. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, health-based mis- and disinformation increased vaccine hesitancy and negatively impacted public health in nearly every country worldwide.

Fake news is also a threat to human rights. Inappropriate policy responses to disinformation can therefore pose risks to human rights, particularly the right to freedom of expression. For instance, limiting access to social media platforms like X (formerly known as Twitter) to counter fake news can significantly impact freedom of expression. Such restrictions stifle political discourse and may even fuel the spread of fake news.

Countering this threat requires a collaborative and hybrid approach involving the government, media, tech companies, and the public. This involves equipping journalists in ethical journalism and promoting evidence-based reporting, prioritising fact-checking and practising verification of data and digital images.

Government regulation is necessary to deter malicious actors, and important to strike a balance between tackling fake news and protecting freedom of expression. Laws targeting “fake news” can be misused to suppress dissent and stifle independent journalism. For instance, the Punjab Provincial Assembly passed a controversial Punjab Defamation Act 2024 without engaging all the stakeholders instead of focusing on promoting media literacy, transparency, and accountability.

Ultimately, the fight against fake news starts with each of us. Before sharing any information online, we need to verify its source, think about the history of journalistic integrity, use fact-checking tools and consult multiple sources before making an opinion.

Most importantly, Pakistan has five Right to Information (RTI) laws. If these laws are implemented in letter and spirit, maximum information can be proactively disclosed as mandated by each law. This transparency can help minimise the threat of fake news.

Here I conclude with a quote, attributed to Mark Twain: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”


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