Now that, courtesy the Election Commission of Pakistan, the caretaker set-ups are complete, it is high time to turn to a burning aspect of their task, which is the conduct of free and fair elections. That aspect, first highlighted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal which led to Facebook changing the way it went about things, is that of digital interference in the elections by means of fake news. The Cobrapost scandal in neighbouring India was aimed at showing what could happen there for its election next year, but it could well be applicable to Pakistan.

Cobrapost is a news website, and in a series of investigative reports, its investigative reporter approached a number of media houses to bring about favourable coverage, including the planting of fake news, for the BJP, which will seek re-election next year. It is interesting that the media houses behind the biggest names in Indian journalism, like The Times of India, the Indian Express and Zee, had their marketing people meet Cobrapost’s investigative reporter, who was posing as a BJP activist. It makes sense that marketing people are assigned to talk money, but it is worth noting that in India, marketing executives feel able to make commitments about editorial content, to the extent of compromising on news, and being ready to commit to fake news.

This is not just wrong ethically, but is also wrong from a marketing point of view. After all, one of the things a newspaper sells is that it is not a novel. They both have a similar bulk, but there are two major differences: a novel has one, or at most a few, authors; a newspaper has many– that is why a newspaper can print in 24 hours roughly the same number of words that go into an average novel, which may take a year to be written and published. A second, and perhaps more important, difference, is that newspapers contain the truth, while novels are false. Novels are supposed to express a kind of truth, and it can be argued that the truth it contains is higher than that expressed in newspapers. But it is still false.

The 2016 American presidential election did see the use of fake news. There was worry expressed that this could lead to the use of fake news in other elections, to the extent that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had to mention Pakistan and India specifically in the list of upcoming elections which Facebook would work to see remained uncontaminated. First up is Pakistan, now undergoing its election campaign.

Another important component of the digital footprint on elections is the availability of individual data, which would allow campaign ads to be targeted at individuals. As a matter of fact, that was the source of the Cambridge Analytica scandal: its access of vast amounts of data. Facebook’s fault has been allowing election advertisers access to that data. And that is what Cambridge Analytica did: advise on content and placement of online ads to persuade Netizens to vote for individual candidates. The Cobrapost report included a segment about Paytm, the e-commerce website, and its willingness to sell data of its customers. One of its selling points was that it had provided data to the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office). In a clarification issued later, it said that its data was all safe, and data had only been provided to the law-enforcing agencies.

However, is that a guarantee of safety? Do the law-enforcing agencies maintain neutrality? If Cobrapost is to be believed, newspaper executives don’t. The newspaper executives were open about their soft corner for the BJP, which fits in with the business community’s tilt towards the BJP. Clearly, there was no need to check the tilt of newsmen, because it seems the marketing people were calling the shots.

At the same time, there seems to be a failure to realise that truth is not merely an ideal, or a part of journalistic ethics, but the subject of the business. While journalists might protect the truth out of some higher purpose, for marketing people, it is the focus of brand recognition. Marketing people, at bottom, must sell their product as purveying the truth. The reader buys a newspaper under the impression that its contents include the truth. If it does not, he will go to a source that gives him facts; another newspaper, the Internet, TV channels.

It would have been better to portray newsmen as nobler and more self-sacrificing, but it would not have been true. The truth is, the truth sells. While anyone who can, tries to manipulate the media, ultimately the truth is too powerful, or rather too valuable, to suppress or distort. Those who have understood this have established the mass media of the day. Those who have not, may have profited for a time, but have left behind nothing lasting.

It is also worth noting that the Cobrapost sting may well have hit major newspaper groups, but there was a lot of discussion about news channels under their control. It seems that newspapers are not the only game in town, and particularly with a low literacy rate, India and Pakistan should still be growth areas for newspapers. However, with TV channels also facing a threat from websites, the whole media market seems to be in something of a flux, with media manipulators facing both a plethora of choices and uncertainty about results.

The problem in India and Pakistan is that social media use is comparatively limited. Also, people still use newspapers to inform themselves rather than websites. It is also debatable whether social media advertising would affect more than a limited number of urban constituencies. However, it should not be forgotten that the opinion in urban constituencies tickles down to rural constituencies.

It should not be ignored that the first burst in the electronic electoral struggle has been fired against the most electronically adept party, the Pakistan Tehrik Insaf, which is the most active on the social media. Indeed has been mocked for this to the extent of being accused to not being as big as its social media presence shows it to be.

Even before publication, the Internet is echoing with the memoirs of Reham Khan, the second wife of party chief Imran Khan. The memoirs throw a lurid light on Imran and his immediate entourage. The PML(N) and the PPP both contain media-savvy and active cadres, but the PML(N) seems to be ahead in this respect. It is to be seen how these ‘revelations’ are used.

It is interesting, that Donald Trump, the 2016 client of Cambridge Analytica, is also media-savvy. He was formerly the host of a reality TV show, The Apprentice, which is how this real-estate mogul gained the public recognition that allowed him to be elected to the USA’s highest office without ever having held public office before. He has also found himself mired in the kind of scandals that Reham accuses Imran Khan of being involved in.

One option open to the caretakers is to ignore social media, social media manipulation and all the ills that go with it, leaving it to the Returning Officers and the Election Commission to order any action. After all, the main means of manipulation is online advertising. Campaign advertising is relatively new phenomenon in Pakistan, being illegal before 1993. The other is to be more watchful. After all, that is the price of democracy. And of liberty.


n          The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive

editor of The Nation.