Journalists in Pakistan are keeping up with global trends and are not far behind their western counterparts in the spreading of alternative facts and fake news.

More than a year ago someone from the US asked me at a conference if fake news was as big a problem in Pakistan as it was in the US. I say no, not yet. In the US fake stories get around because of the mass access to social media. In Pakistan is not as big a phenomenon due to less outreach of social media and the Internet. Sure we have questionable journalist practices- we have bad reporting and sensationalism and yellow journalism, but fewer blatantly fake stories at the national level. But Mubashir Lucman and Dr. Shahid Masood were happy to prove me wrong.

Dr Shahid Masood’s last month claimed he had proof that the man arrested for the rape and murder of a minor girl from Kasur had as many as 37 local and foreign currency accounts. He backtracked once he was caught lying.

On February 4, Mubasher Lucman put up a picture of Reham Khan from when she was campaigning for the PTI in 2015, and claimed the picture was from 2018, and Reham was being interviewed in India dressed in the colours of the Indian flag. Oddly enough, the colours could also be mistaken for PTI colours. Lucman, who describes himself on Twitter as being “on the top of anchorpersons index in Pakistan”, got 1,400 retweets. Many didn’t realise that Reham Khan, even if she had an anti-Pakistan agenda, wouldn’t be so dense that she would wrap herself in an Indian flag. Even though his audience corrected him, the tweet is still online. Because news is news, fake or real.  Also, there is no such thing as an “anchorpersons index” in Pakistan.

The audiences are no better, and are happy to let themselves be led like lambs to slaughter on an easy diet of false news. In 2016, former Defence Minster Khawaja Asif almost declared war on Israel after a fake news story of an Israel threat to Pakistan made the rounds on TV and social media. No news channel or state official fact checked the story until it was too late. It is naïve to feign victimhood if audiences have chosen not to be critical of pundits, and are happy to retweet false news and stories that fan hate into social media oblivion. So long as a story gels well with your personal ideology, who cares if it is true.

If the likes of Mubasher Lucman cannot tell a fake story from a real one, when it is literally his job to check what he is saying is true, how can we expect audiences to? In the age of social media, where there is an overload of content in our news feeds, the responsibility of deciding what news we want to consume and believe is not in the hands of the newspapers but the user. Facebook and Google have also gone so far as to tweak what stories/websites to present to you based in your past searches and clicks.

Social media gave the consumer the power to curate the content they consume, but made sure the content they were getting became increasing worthless. Seventy percent of the time people browse through mindless content including videos and memes, the rest of the time they are faced with biased news stories that have got enough clicks and shares to pop up in their news feed. I say seventy percent from a hunch, not journalistic research, though I’m sure eighty percent of the people reading this article will not bother to fact check me. Having worked in news media in the past I came to realise that people are most likely to be outraged when a story or op-ed mentions something about religion, the military, or India. No one looks up or question the facts being presented, but takes high offence over opinions, even when they are well argued, often responding with insults. What matters from a story is the controversy it generates and the emotions it brings to a boil, rather than the truth it lays bare.

Journalism should be a profession obsessed with fact finding but important voices on the television are making sure that they bury the their own inadequacy as investigative journalists under shouting matches. The Internet is not generating a space for real truth and debate, the journalists are lying, and audiences are lazy. It is the perfect muddle of confusion anyone needs to manipulate public opinion. One day it is a political party, the next religious zealots and the next the military’s PR machine, and that’s the news cycle.

In the age of social media, where there is an overload of content in our news feeds, the responsibility of deciding what news we want to consume and believe is not in the hands of the newspapers but the user.