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Media Watch: Dawn of a scary era

“A lie can travel halfway across the world, while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

Though always true, the above statement (ironically enough, falsely attributed to Mark Twain) has never been more true than it is in the age of the internet.

But whereas the internet gave a much wider platform to crazy conspiracy theorists than the pamphlets that they might have been feverishly printing out in their basements, within the internet it is social media in particular that have truly increased the reach of such content exponentially.

On social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the accounts of news organisations that have a host of staffers that come up with leads, do investigations, vett the facts and lay out the grammar, are put in the same category, more or less, as the social media accounts of not just crazed conspiracy theorists but also well-organised interest groups that knowingly want to broadcast false information.

Dubious WhatsApp messages have led to lynchings across the border in India. Whereas we haven’t had a case like that in Pakistan (yet) we still see our share of the muddling of public discourse by “WhatsApp Uncles” around, some of whom occupy apex positions in our republic.

Within the netizens, there is a particular sub-section that seeks to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, and wants to discern between random factoids flying here and there on social media and vetted reports by the news media organisations that they trust.

It appears that the already small sub-section of news consumers online are going to face yet another hurdle in their attempts to get the correct news. Dawn, Pakistan’s paper of record, has had to face an interesting, if alarming, bit of identity theft, for lack of a better term.

The news related to one of the PTI’s newly elected MNAs from Karachi, Faisal Vawda. The man had, about a month ago, moved the Sindh High Court against the Karachi Mayor (who happens to belong to the MQM) for alleged corruption in funds. It might have only been month but it is now a political lifetime ago, as the PTI and the MQM are coalition partners at the federal level.

Seeing this as an opportunity to make both parties (specially the PTI) squirm in their seats a little more, a fake news item was generated. “PTI leader Faisal Vawda withdrawal Petition against ‘corruption’ in Mayor Karachi.”

To lend an air of credibility to the news item, the font, motif and layout of the image was exactly like that of Dawn’s online edition. WhatsApp forwards of this image would be enough to do the damage.

The team at Dawn was quick to spot it and immediately made a news item describing it. The tone of this Dawn piece was a tad smug and bizarre. It laid down how it was clearly fake news because it didn’t follow the style sheet of Dawn and was rife with grammatical mistakes.

It seemed as if Dawn was actually giving the perpetrators tips for next time. The fact of the matter is that grammar isn’t tough to get right. The proliferation of fake news is something we need to gear up against, not just on the national, but also international level.

It is something that the tech giants of today, like Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like need to roll up their sleeves for and tackle, without compromising on the freedom of speech that their subscribers have.

The Tube

Media Watch column is meant to offer commentary on the affairs of the media.

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