Written by Syed Hasnain Akber
Back in 2018, I was interning at an organization where one of my main tasks was to evaluate different kinds of fake news on Twitter. It was mind-boggling to see how political rivals share misinformation to spread propaganda against each other. Interests groups have been using propaganda for decades but the emergence of globalization and the industrial revolution brought a new form of propaganda known as “digital propaganda”. This includes deceptive and pseudo-information that can be easily spread through different digital channels to manipulate public opinion.
Digital propaganda is harmful because it produces emotional responses, threats and attacks on political opponents, or spreads messages that create division among social groups in a community. There’s also the deployment of bots by different political factions to promote their own agenda, manipulating public opinion on different social media platforms. These bots are used for performing specific tasks at a faster rate than humans which includes spreading misinformation repetitively.
Pakistan has seen a massive emergence of fake news in recent years with the increasing use of social media, access to the internet, and access to smartphones. A study by GSMA Intelligence says that in 2018, the mobile ecosystem in Pakistan generated $16.7 billion, which is an estimated 5.4 percent of GDP. According to DataReportal, there were 71.70 million social media users in Pakistan in January 2022. This led to increased accessibility of information through digital channels and decreased reliance on traditional media which tended to have more transparency and oversight mechanisms to ensure that published news was factual.
A large proportion of the fake news we see online revolves around politics, the economy, military issues, gender, culture and religion. A Digital Rights Foundation survey report shows that 8% of Pakistani journalists who participated in the survey said that information is not verified in their newsrooms and that they have often accepted misleading information as valid.
In December 2022, news quoting the then Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Shibli Faraz, was spread of him asking investors to turn their black money into white money by initiating construction projects. A fake screenshot was also shared in 2018 claiming that Maryam Nawaz was pregnant which was doctored to look like a Dawn newspaper article. There were also fake videos of the engagement of Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari, daughter of Asif Zardari, and an audio clip circulatingon social media in which former Chief of the Army Staff, General Aslam Beg, is heard saying he’s against the Pakistan Army – claims he later denied. These stories and many others have surfaced on different social media platforms. There remains a significant amount of fake news available online, which is not being adequately addressed and exposed.
The increasing propaganda can lead to significant consequences including destabilizing the state’s institutions, undermining democracy, and weakening the trust of the public in the democratic processes. There is a strong need for media literacy and setting up guidelines on whether the news is credible or not. Factracker is a startup aimed at demystifying the fake news on online platforms ensuring a fairer spread of information which ultimately leads to better digital democracy. This initiative also aims at deploying Artificial Intelligence in fact-checking while allowing the citizens to share the pertinent issues in their communities.
*Syed Hasnain Akber is an AL Pakistan accountapreneur and the founder of Factracker, which is aimed at specifically targeting two major issues plaguing the world of the 21st century: fake news and lack of credible news platforms to address real-world problems by empowering the individuals to inform themselves about the veracity of any piece of information