NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 35

Digital media literacy and curbing fake news

The sight of filth and garbage thrown into his flowerbed enraged Elyas Ahmad to the core. He loved flowers grown near his gate in the street, and used to spend some time almost daily looking after the plants. All neighbours were aware of his love for his flowerbed. However, someone had thrown shopping bags full of filth and garbage into the bed, and now the place was stinking instead of fragrance.

Fuming Elyas Ahmad was venting out his anger while cleaning the bed. The same afternoon, he received a picture on his Whatsapp account, which added fuel to the fire. In the picture, Naveed Chatha, one of his neighbours, was throwing filth and garbage into his flowerbed. Elyas Ahmad sprang up and rushed to the main gate, to teach the culprit a lesson.

However, when he reached the garage, he recalled what his doctor had suggested to him about anger management. “Think before you act… Look before you leap!” Elyas Ahmad came back and sat down in a chair.

“Why would he throw garbage into my flowerbed,” he asked himself. “I’ve never seen Mr. Chatha taking garbage to the skip earlier,” he recalled.

Yes, the two had exchanged barbs over a political issue a week ago, while sitting in the society park. But the issue was settled down then and there with the interference of some other neighbours. “But what about the picture, which was telling quite a different story,” he was unable to decide.

Finally, he made a decision and sent the picture to Chatha on his Whatsapp number, asking him “Why did you throw garbage into my flowerbed?”

In only a few minutes, Naveed Chatha was ringing his doorbell.

Making it clear that neither he threw garbage into the flowerbed nor it was his picture, Chatha asked him where he had received the post.

It transpired after only a little deliberation that it was all manipulation and the doing of one Adeel Khan, who was living with Mr Chatha in the same house. Both had a dispute on the ownership of the house, and the case was pending a decision in a court of law. The next day, it was an important hearing, wherein Chatha was supposed to record his statement.

Adeel Khan was aware of the bitter talk between Elyas Ahmad and Naveed Chatha a week ago. He managed to throw garbage throwing into the flowerbed through his son and took a snap of the act. Being an IT expert himself, it was quite easy for him to replace the face of his son with Naveed Chatha’s with the help of Photoshop software. Then he sent the picture to Elyas Ahmad.

Adeel Khan believed Elyas Ahmad was a short-tempered person. He thought the picture would make Elyas Ahmad attack Chatha, and his rival would not be able to reach the court the next day.

However, Elyas Ahmad’s self-restraint for a while and the ‘Think-before-you-act’ approach foiled the designs of an evil guy. But in our country, most people believe in whatever they receive on social media apps, and forward the messages to their friends and social media groups without any restraint.

Social media is a collective term for websites and applications that focus on communication, community-based input, interaction, content-sharing and collaboration. People use social media to stay in touch and interact with friends, family and various communities. Businesses use social applications to market and promote their products and track customer concerns. Ten major social media platforms, being used across the globe currently, are: Facebook, YouTube, Whatsapp, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Pinterest, Reddit, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Today, social media has become a pillar of many people’s daily lives. The Digital 2022 April Global Statshot Report revealed that there are 4.65 billion social media users on the planet currently. That’s 58.7% of the global population, many of whom are using social media as a primary source of information. From news (and disinformation) to lifestyle tips, decision-making to product research, social media users can gather all the information they need, without ever leaving their platform of choice.

However, the information and other content shared on the social media websites is not genuine and correct all the time. Those using the social media platforms are well aware of fake news and propaganda material, going viral almost daily: doctored videos, malicious memes, fake news and unverified advertisements. How to tackle it has been a million dollar question for all concerned?

The National Press Trust (NPT), in collaboration with the Department of Digital Media, organised a panel discussion on “Importance of Media Literacy in the Digital Era and Need to Curb Fake News” at the School of Communication Studies, University of the Punjab, Lahore, on July 6, 2022. More than 15 academicians, researchers and media experts from mass communication departments of various universities, communication specialists from UNESCO, deputy director, DGPR Punjab, director programming Pegham TV, and NPT officials attended the discussion and shared their views on the subject. National Press Trust Senior Advisor Amjad Pervez Malik and School of Communication Studies Chairperson Dr. Savera Shami chaired the session.

The participants were of the view that no single strategy could work effectively for all segments of society to curb fake news and propaganda. They said it is not only a matter of some theory, but a practical task, involving almost all factions of society. They stressed a three-pronged strategy to tackle the challenge being posed by fake news on social media in the country.

Social media users could be sensitised about the need to curb fake news through interesting anecdotes, stories, and sayings of noble people, making the respondents realise their responsibilities towards their fellow human beings, and society at large.

For people with religious leanings in a Muslim society like ours, a Hadith related to the subject matter must be repeated again and again. In Sahih Muslim, Vol 1, Hadith 7 reads:

“It is enough of a lie for a man to narrate (without verifying) everything he hears.”

News stories about punishment to those spreading fake news or indulging in propaganda against the state and state institutions must be selected from the mainstream and digital media, made more crisp and to the point, and shared on social media sites.

The stories could serve as a deterrent for a large number of people, believe the experts. It’s a common perception that the Motorway Police don’t spare anyone over the violation of the traffic rules; that’s why a large majority of drivers mostly avoid violating laws on the highway. That means a perception, if created about any authority, does serve the purpose. If people are made to believe through messages that any violation of the laws governing the social media content could land the violators in trouble, a number of attempts to spread fake news could be thwarted.

And when departments and people concerned identify those groups and individuals which are main sources of spread of fake news, a warning may be issued on their social media accounts. If a message is dropped in the ‘inbox’ of a Facebook account, a Whatsapp number, a tweet, or an Instagram account that “You Are Under Watch for Spreading Fake News”, many would stop indulging in this practice.

However, activists or die-hard supporters of some particular ideologies might not pay heed to it. For them, a call from the FIA, or police dealing with cyber crimes, etc., might help restrain them from such activities.