In 2017, much was made of the role played by the internet and social media in facilitating the spread of ‘fake news’. This concern over the dissemination of false information arose primarily out of the alleged role it played in influencing politics across the West; from the election of Donald Trump to the Brexit referendum and the French and German general elections, activists and governments have been paying increasing attention to the ways in which digital platforms are being used to misinform and misguide ever larger numbers of people around the world. In the United States and Europe, these concerns are intertwined with allegations that Russia has been using this kind of misinformation to subvert and manipulate electoral results. As a result, companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are being subjected to greater scrutiny with regards to the measures they take to prevent their products from being used for these kinds of political machinations, with government commissions and inquiries calling them to task for their failure to do so in 2016 and 2017. For their own part, these tech companies appear to be responding to the pressure being placed on them by Western governments, vowing to do more to prevent the spread of fake news.
While ‘fake news’ is a real thing, it is important to remember that what is or is not considered to be ‘fake’ has itself become a matter of debate, with partisan politics and subjective opinions colouring much of the discussion. This is because labelling inconvenient truths as ‘fake news’ is something that has proven to be extremely effective in countering opposition and criticism, as demonstrated by the success Donald Trump has had in convincing his supporters that mainstream news outlets like CNN are part of a broader campaign to undermine and discredit him through any means necessary. Not coincidentally, the resonance of this tactic has much to do with how it taps into the suspicion many have of the elites that control government and media, and the who also tend to dominate the public discourse. In the United States, for example, it has become increasingly clear that Trump derives a considerable amount of support from predominantly white voters who feel that their lives are controlled by metropolitan and cosmopolitan ‘liberal’ elite that is seeking to radically transform the fabric of society through the imposition of new cultural values and economic policies. While there is a kernel of truth at the heart of this narrative, which is perhaps why it is so persuasive, it should be clearly obvious that much of it is built on falsehood and caricature. More importantly, the deployment of this narrative, and the concurrent demonization of mainstream politics and the media, diverts attention away from the structural factors underpinning the Insecurity and alienation experienced by many of Trump’s supporters. To find evidence of this, one need look no further than the tax cuts Trump and his Republican allies in Congress have been championing this past month; while casting themselves as champions of the working and middle classes, committed to fighting against the Washington establishment and its enablers in the media, Trump and the Republican party have successfully passed legislation that will result in a massive transfer of wealth from the poor of the rich while laying the groundwork for eroding welfare programmes like Medicare and Medicaid in the name of deficit reduction. By focusing the attention of their supporters on questions of culture and ideology, Trump and his cronies have been able to get away with pursuing a political agenda that is at odds with the aspirations and concerns of the voters that brought them to power.
There are lessons to be learnt here for Pakistan. Unlike the West, where fake news and the platforms through which it is delivered are being investigated, and where there is concern over the way in which it has been deployed to shape narratives that favour those in power, there is little recognition of the problem here in the Land of the Pure. Instead, what we find here is a context in which the most outrageous falsehoods are routinely passed off as fact, and very few questions are asked about the provenance of the information transmitted on television screens and the social media. Take, for example, the slanderous smear campaign launched by BOL News against the rights activist JIbran Nasir. Earlier this week, in response to the release of Shahrukh Jatoi after terrorism charges were dropped against him in the Shahzeb Khan murder case, Jibran Nasir and others lodged a petition in the Supreme Court asking for the decision to be revisited. For reasons that are not immediately clear, BOL news decided to engage in outright character assassination, accusing Jibran Nasir of blasphemy (for allegedly opposing Pakistan’s Qisas and Diyat laws) and of being a foreign-funded agent with links to India. Not a single shred of evidence was provided in support of these allegations.
While BOL has done this before (including with Jibran Nasir himself), the truly frightening thing this time around is the nature of the platform being used. Whereas previously anchors like Amir Liaquat debased themselves by hurling these slanderous and potentially life-threatening accusations, they are now being delivered by a faceless avatar named ‘Mr. Quom’, a masked figure who claims to be speaking for the masses against the forces of liberalism and secularism that are allegedly seeking to destroy Pakistan. This is ‘fake news’ distilled to its purest form, fiction presented as fact delivered anonymously without any sources, responsibility, or concern for the consequences.
In a year marked by the abduction and ‘disappearance’ of a number of bloggers and activists whose only apparent ‘crime’ was challenging the dominant narrative of jingoism and religious parochialism propagated by the state, it is more important than ever to remember how similar accusations – of blasphemy and treason – laid the groundwork for justifying their imprisonment and torture. Last week, the Islamabad High Court was told by the FIA that there was no reason to believe that Salman Haider, Waqas Goraya, and the other bloggers who were allegedly kidnapped and tortured by the state for several months, had committed blasphemy. Yet, at the time of their disappearance, social media and the news had been aflame with ‘proof’ of their wrongdoing, creating an atmosphere in which their lives were placed in real danger and the treatment meted out to them by the state was justified. A similar dynamic is at play now as well; when it comes to people like Jibran Nasir or Raza Khan, the activist who went missing in Lahore earlier this month, accusations of this kind are actively deployed to discredit and undermine them. That there is no evidence to support these claims is of little relevance; after all, ‘fake news’ is premised on the absence of proof, relying on the ubiquity and effectiveness of its medium of propagation to successfully spread its misinformation.
As a general rule in politics, it always pays to ask who benefits from any given course of action. When it comes to targeting activists by tarring them with accusations of treason and blasphemy, it should be clear that the benefit accrues to those who profit from the perpetuation of a status quo in which citizens have little protection from the abuse of power by a largely authoritarian state, and in which citizenship and national identity are inextricably tied up with parochial versions of Islam. That activists and dissidents are being silenced is nothing new in Pakistan. What makes it more disturbing is how technology and the media now play a leading role in this persecution.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.