The phenomenon of fake news is not new to Pakistan - with the increase in the use of social media and interactive applications, fake news is bound to pop up on many screens. The reason why it spreads like wildfire is that people rarely want to make the effort to crosscheck what is being said online and act instinctively. This is exactly what happened in the case of the attack on the Ahmadi worship place a few days ago. While on the ground, there is still plenty of space to negate the claims being made; it is relatively difficult to control the narrative once it is online.
It was quite encouraging to see the new Minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari responds to the calls by the masses to take action against the issue. Her immediate response may have held the protests at bay – but the hard work needs to be put in now.
First, the government must stop portraying this event as an “altercation between two youth groups”. The incident in Faisalabad may have started off as a simple altercation, but it quickly took a communal hue, and the mob charged with the explicit intention of burning Ahmedi property and places of worship and killing as many of them as possible. Calling it an altercation is not only disingenuous; it misrepresents what happened, downplays the severity of the attack, and brushes the role of organized religious intolerance completely under the rug.
Secondly, it must investigate this online army that is ready to unleash its vitriol at a moment’s notice and spread false information with the hope of stirring up religious sensitivities. The state knows who is responsible – at least partially – now. It will be undoubtedly difficult to stop fake news spreading online, but a concentrated effort can be made to clamp down at least on those social media accounts that spread misinformation and incite violence against religious minorities in the wake of such events.
The state – the Federal Investigation Authority (FIA), the Interior Ministry, and the Ministry of Information – has a vast infrastructure that can be used to monitor online activity. In fact journalists and politicians of all ideological leanings have passed under the lens of these bodies time and again. It is time these powers are diverted where they are needed the most.
The state may not know where the mob will strike next, but it can try to keep misinformation from igniting a preventable fuse.