Clearing The Air: Fake News Busted Thrice In One Day

Clearing The Air: Fake News Busted Thrice In One Day
The information landscape in Pakistan suffers from a deluge of 'fake news' that feeds into the conspiracy-theorist mindset prevalent across vast segments of Pakistani society. Over the past few years, a specific electronic media ecosystem - based on traditional electronic sources such as news channels and websites, as well as social media platforms - has been cultivated to promote narratives and beliefs that lend credibility to a specific political party, or rather, a specific political leader. Despite being identified and negated many times, the constituents and facilitators of this ecosystem continue to churn out inaccurate representations of facts, and twist the context of actual incidents, in order to perpetuate a façade of truth that the supporters of this leader and this party can hide behind.

Since the failed March 14 police operation to arrest former prime minister and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan, social media accounts affiliated with PTI, or known to support PTI and Imran Khan, have publicly posted many stories depicting 'policy brutality' against PTI workers at Zaman Park. However, many of these stories have been refuted as false, unsubstantiated, or deliberately distorted to suit the view that PTI wishes to propagate.

For instance, PTI chief Imran Khan commended his worker Usman Jaura for protecting a defenseless female PTI supporter who seemed to be fired upon by law enforcers. The former premier tweeted three screengrabs from a video purporting to show the 'heroism' of his party workers. But Khan's narrative was debunked when it was pointed out that the female PTI worker appeared to be arming herself with petrol bombs.

And on closer analysis, it seems that the pictures Khan tweeted were themselves from a heavily edited video.

This fact check was already made yesterday (March 16). But as expected, there was no clarification, acknowledgment or retraction from the PTI chairman.

In fact, Khan is well known to double down whenever he is 'caught in a lie'. And Khan's stalwarts always seem to be in a race to outdo their chairman when it comes to making tall claims and distorting facts. Former Punjab information minister Fayaz-ul-Hassan Chohan tweeted a video of what he claimed was the 2007 'Lal Masjid' siege, which according to him was 'wrongly' being shared as footage from Zaman Park. In a supremely ironic twist, the video actually turned out to be from Zaman Park, taken on the morning of March 15, 2023; it showed a PTI supporter throwing a petrol bomb on an APC from the roof of Imran Khan's house. In short, Chohan's claim against the video was itself based on fake news, and his attempt to divert blame from PTI workers for their wanton disregard for the lives of law enforcers failed miserably.

Unfortunately, despite the above rebuttal, Chohan's tweet had been shared by more than 5,000 people, and the video had been viewed over 200,000 times. The continued propagation of this fake news story itself masquerading as a 'fact check' is perhaps the real challenge that Pakistan faces.

The desire to twist objective reality to suit their own narratives is not confined to the PTI chairman or party leadership alone. Even PTI workers and supporters, most of whom exhibit this tendency on social media and in real life, are known to share news stories that appear to suit their narrative, but fall apart on the most rudimentary of fact-checking.

A photo of a bearded man in a uniform hitting a female was shared by a 'Noshi Gilani' on Twitter, and quickly became viral on social media thanks to it being shared and promoted by pro-PTI accounts. The Twitter user claimed that it was an image from Zaman Park in Lahore, but it turned out to be from Afghanistan, published by an international news media organisation in October 2022.

It may be noted that the above 'fake news' went viral on pro-PTI social media because it was shared by vlogger Imran Riaz Khan, known to associate closely with his namesake PTI chairman since the latter was ousted in 2022. In his rabid support of Imran Khan's political ideology, Imran Riaz Khan depleted whatever journalistic credibility and professional impartiality he had. Since he assumed the role of PTI's 'media darling', Imran Riaz Khan has also been lambasted for peddling fake stories, and distorting real stories in ways that would promote Imran Khan's narrative.

Even in the latest incident of March 14, Imran Riaz Khan could not have let others surpass him in the field of fake news. He posted a Tiktok video which allegedly showed the inspector general (IG) of Punjab police telling his officers to 'attack their enemies'. This time, the official account of the Punjab police refuted Imran Riaz Khan's blatantly false accusation; the video was actually from February 16, 2023, when the IG was addressing policemen who had repulsed a terrorist attack in Mianwali.

Again, there was no apology for propagating a falsehood, or promoting fake news and incorrect narratives to promote the idea that Punjab's law enforcement is bent on 'brutalising' the innocent PTI supporters who are only in Zaman Park to 'protect Imran Khan'. The fact of the matter is that Imran Khan is resisting arrest, and PTI workers are attacking police and paramilitary forces to prevent Khan's lawful arrest. To obfuscate this reality, PTI supporters in Pakistan and abroad will continue to paint themselves as the victims, and the authorities as the oppressors. Never mind the fact that Khan's government treated violent right-wing protesters the same way, if not worse, in April 2021. It is perhaps PTI's greatest disservice to Pakistan that they have legitimised fake news, and facilitated these repeated triumphs of falsehood over truth.

The promotion and propagation of such scintillating, exciting, nerve-wracking, anger-inducing stories which are actually based on half-baked conspiracy theories, on inaccurate readings of history, and on fake news from unreliable sources, will not stop until the market for these fake news stories - the gullible masses of Pakistan - does not change its demand and diet. This requires an overhaul of Pakistan's education system, especially the calibre of those teaching our youth. It also requires an overhaul of Pakistan's mainstream electronic media environment, which should promote harmony and unity instead of polarisation and division. Most importantly, it requires a healing of Pakistan's social fabric, for which mainstream politicians and civil society must come together for the sake of Pakistan, and learn to agree to disagree respectfully.