We live in a world of fake news, fake politics, and an artificial environment which has nothing to do with the people at large
Michael Bowen, a fellow and senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, had asked at a World Economic Forum session last year in June: How do we effectively pursue the truth and promote evidence-based decision-making in an era when leaders shoot down inconvenient truths as ‘fakenews’?
The subject was again picked up this week at the WEF in Davos and our own Bilawal Bhutto Zardari spoke on it. Many other eminent people also spoke. Bilawal spoke about the nexus of fake news with democracy, saying: “When politicians use it as a catch-all phrase to cover political spin, stuff they don’t like, then it gets murky.”
When asked about the danger fake news posed to democracy, Bilawal said doling out of cash to journalists by big business houses could potentially plaster real news with sensationalism.
I was immensely amused by the comments and I am positive that friends, Sherry Rehman and Farhatullah Babar, both coming from the media and known to be very close to Bilawal must have contributed to those views. Who he had in mind when accusing big business can also be guessed.
I felt a bit cheated since Bilawal, a novice in politics and knowing even less about the media — as he has been completely shrouded and covered by his father, not exposing him to real, open, or independent media — was speaking to a world audience without even an iota of feeling or realisation that he may himself have been a victim of fake news.
Fake promises, lies, incorrect stats are so frequently used that Pakistan has become the butt of jokes in financial markets and international fora
No one would of course have raised that issue at the WEF, but when Bilawal said a debate should be held about how useful the term ‘fake news’ is, my immediate response was: Oh great, let’s have a debate in Pakistan first about fake names, peddled for political expediency using names of real PPP leaders, who sacrificed their lives for democracy.
In the Pakistani context, most of the news, politics, claims and achievements (taxpayer funded of course), super-duper rallies meant to show massive support for politicians, qualified or disqualified, are intrinsically fake, carefully managed (like showering petals from self-owned helicopters), never impromptu, but of course touted as real
Why I say the news is fake? It is because most of it is based on undisclosed sources, un-named leaders or officials, un-substantiated or un-proven claims, charges or accusations. What is official and factual always comes out to be the opposite to what is claimed or reported by the media. Rarely the news is accepted or certified as correct by the government or opposition.
The people remain confused and the line between real and fake news in Pakistan is almost non-existent or very thin, to say the least.
Similarly faded is the line between real and fake politics.
How should the claims of national leaders and holders of the highest offices in the country acquired through the ballot or through threat of use of the bullet, be judged?
Every leader comes out and promises that he would create a heaven out of hell in just a few weeks or months, knowing fully well that it would practically be impossible, given all the funds, commitment or resources. Fake promises, lies, incorrect stats are so frequently used that Pakistan has become the butt of jokes in financial markets and international fora. All decisions to help or not to help are political, never on merit.
Our leaders never blink an eye making false claims or paying the price of these fake claims.
Numerous examples can be quoted. Some big ones: The truth about Kargil war, did we win or lose it and why? The facts about corruption of politicians, who’s who and how petty businessmen of recent years became national leaders and global billionaires; Why elections are always disputed; Is there any role of the establishment in change of governments and leaders, with or without elections? The list can go on.
When the media publishes or telecasts all these controversial claims, statements, and ‘facts’, most of them outright lies, as breaking news or in banner headlines on front pages, does that not constitute fake news?
When politics is obviously a fraud, how can any reporting of the cooked-up statements, claims and facts be real or factual? How can it not be fake news?
When the media, as Bilawal said and rightly so, are controlled by big business and when a big media tycoon admitted in a moment of excitement outside the Supreme Court that his first priority was business and he only cared about his business and not a bit for journalism, how can it be expected that facts and truth would be reported as they are, rather than in a twisted, manipulated or fabricated form to suit the vested interests.
So how can we say that what we see on TV and read in newspapers every day is either pre-paid post-paid or duly compensated sooner than later, and is not fake news?
Thus, we live in a world of fake news, fake politics, and an artificial environment which has nothing to do with the people at large, who have no real say in who controls their lives and destiny and how they can empower themselves to challenge this status quo.
But there are positive and optimistic signs. In recent weeks, media have played a really assertive role in highlighting atrocities of the ruling elite, police, bureaucrats, politicians, against ordinary people. The Zainab case is a very recent example. The Jatoi case in Karachi, the Asma case in Mardan, and many others ignored by the ruling elite elsewhere, are now making headlines and encouragingly getting response from the masses, as seen in the Zainab case in Kasur.
The most impressive show of media power and not-a-fake-news was in Karachi when a TV anchor called out his social media followers to come and join him to clean graffiti off the walls and streets of Karachi. Thousands showed up. And then we saw that thousands protested for Zainab in Kasur.
Is this then the new way to counter the fake news glaciers that we have been forced to endure for years? May be so.
Anna Belkina, deputy chief editor of Russian TV RT, made a pertinent prediction in Davos two days ago: “Yes, fake news will be around, but not for much longer. I think that we’re all starting to see the issues.”