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The Anatomy of a Liar: Fact Checking in Pakistan

Jehan | Mar 22 2023
The Anatomy of a Liar: Fact Checking in Pakistan

Fact checking in Pakistan is now almost a household phrase. Almost! But the idea doesn’t seem to have as big a stranglehold on our lives as we thought (or wished) it would.

Checking claims for accuracy is a tough job and in some countries, it can also be dangerous. But we’re not going to be talking about other countries (well, maybe a bit), our attention is solely on Pakistan, a country seemingly rife with mis/disinformation campaigns.

The panel on fact checking in Pakistan

From Left to Right: Jahanzaib Haque, Farieha Aziz, Zarrar Khuhro, Amber Rahim Shamsi, Shaheryar Popalzai, and Arafat Mazhar at +92Disrupt

We will be going over a lot of the conversations that happened at +92Disrupt, but we don’t have the most positive outlook to begin with. As Zarrar Khuhro, Host of Zara Hat Kay on Dawn News, said at the event:

“The bad news is, in cheezon (fact-checking) se koi farq nhi parhta.” 

But we should know why he says this.

Upon conducting a simple search, you’ll find that you can count the number of fact-checking platforms and initiatives in Pakistan on your fingers – there aren’t many.

Fact Checking Platforms and Initiatives in Pakistan

Let’s go over the standout names in the news validation space in Pakistan.

Pro Tip: To see how serious they are about delivering the truth, check to see what their methodology, tools, resources, and ethics are. Additionally, check whether they find themselves answerable to international fact checking regulations; for instance, the IFCN code of principles.

  1. Soch Fact Check: As one of the most active platforms in the fact checking space, Soch provides its expertise on topics including business, culture, economy, religion, politics, and everything else that matters. It is actively policing false claims across various platforms, and its co-founder, Arafat Mazhar, played an active role in a panel discussing mis/disinformation at +92Disrupt.
    Soch Fact Check Methodology explains the process of fact checking

    Soch Fact Check’s methodology

  2. AFP Fact Check: A department in Agence France-Presse, the organization isn’t Pakistani, nor is it a regional watchdog. However, they cover news from all over the world and are represented in Pakistan through reporters like Masroor Gilani and Wasi Anjum Mirza.
    AFP's criteria

    AFP’s tools and approaches

  3. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting – Government of Pakistan: A governmental outlet with over 68k followers on twitter. It solely peruses instances of political mentions on social media, screenshots it, and depending on the team and its undefined methodology, they will stamp political news with a trumpian ‘Fake News’ stamp design. The website itself is also simply a Twitter ticker. And unlike the ones mentioned before, its primary focus is to comment on cases of mis/disinformation in regards to the government.
  4. Others:
    – News outlets such as Dawn, Express Tribune, etc. have their own fact checking initiatives and protocols in place.
    – The Center of Excellence in Journalism (CEJ) has set up a training module with Poynter to help Pakistani reporters brush up on fact checking and journalism.
    – Pakistan institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) set up PakistanFact, a platform that last posted on 5th September 2019.

The Difference Between Misinformation and Disinformation

Misinformation is accidental and disinformation is deliberate. So, your uncle sending you WhatsApp forwards about the magnetic properties of the CoronaVirus vaccine counts as misinformation because it lacks malicious intent.

The Anatomy of a Pakistani Fake-News-Spreader

Calling someone a straightup liar seems harsh; however, in our country we’ve seen signs of someone spreading fake news because they don’t know better. And then we’ve seen the same people continue to spread the same news because it now involves their ego and bias.

This is when a willfully ignorant sharer becomes a liar. When misinformation becomes disinformation.

What Do They Look Like?

Those spreading fake news are also people we interact with on a daily basis, they’re educated contributors to society.

According to Mr. Khuhro, these are our friends and colleagues, they are doctors, engineers, psychologists even! Basically, people you would expect to know better.

But despite their lofty achievements, you will find them share fake news and defend their half-baked opinion anyway (that is not to say that our achievements validate our opinions).

Why Is That?

There are a multitude of reasons why the confused become liars. And these reasons often seem like steps:

Reason 1: Agree With Me!

If you have a negative opinion about someone/something, and you read/hear something maligning the very thing you abhor, you will feel inclined to share it.

Why? Because you want other people to like what you like and dislike what you dislike. Its straightforward!

Reason 2: Validate My Beliefs

Let’s say you have an opinion, any opinion. It could be the result of you adopting your family’s beliefs blindly or it could come from something you may have read or heard.

Now, you may not be sure others agree with this view of yours; however, if you read a piece of ‘news’ that seconds your thoughts, you will feel supported.

Without opening the link, you may feel compelled to share this news because it validates your opinion. This results in a dopamine rush.

“You know that feeling you get, that slightly warm feeling of ‘mujhe pata tha!’ That’s a drug; that’s your brain sending dopamine into your body” – Zarrar Khuhro

Then essentially, since validation is a drug, we will seek to acquire that feeling repeatedly. As a result, we will find ourselves becoming a lie-spreader.

Reason 3: I’m Doing this For The Greater Good

There is also a segment of fake news spreaders who may know that what they’re saying isn’t entirely the truth. However, they must do it for the sake of the bigger picture!

What may that be? Maybe they want their political party to win the next elections, maybe it’s a sectarian narrative they want to win; they don’t care about fact checks.

Maybe that’s why we’re constantly reminded of how fact checking in Pakistan isn’t really a thing.

Why is Disinformation so Effective?

How do we provide a substitute for this rush of dopamine? According to Amber Rahim Shamsi, Director of CEJ, “I don’t think there are any solutions”.

Firstly, its important to establish that this isn’t a Pakistan-specific issue. Countries with established fact checking outlets – India and USA for example – have also fallen prey to the inherent psyche of its populace.

Having said that, the rest of the world is still relying on new tools in the space to bolster truth-telling. For example, Twitter has released the Community Notes feature, allowing people to add context to tweets that could be potentially misleading.

But in Pakistan, we can’t even boast the bare minimum of preparedness in the face of ‘fake news’. Amber went on to lament that some media organizations in the country have only just setup fact-checking protocols in 2022.

Polarising narratives have become very easy to put out there – those who may not vote can still participate in debate and influence decisions. As a result, disinformation campaigns have become more effective.

The Audience of a Disinformation Campaign is Ironclad

Disinformation campaigns have a utility – they’re effective. The purpose is straightforward: discredit someone or something.

Once the result is achieved, your audience has developed a negative opinion of something. This is an opinion that will be near-impossible to reverse.

So even if those at the losing end of this indirect smear campaign fact check the claims and prove them to have no grounds, the audience is already lost. This is why fact checking is seen to be a lost cause in Pakistan.

The Lie Comes with an Exceptional Marketing Strategy

The job of social media handlers, designers, content creators, and SEO specialists is to ensure clicks. At this point, the nature of the content is the least of their concerns. And this isn’t their fault – the digital world and their salaries are simply structured this way.

Clickbait-y titles, dramatic social media post templates (we’ve all seen the black background and yellow fonts), exaggerated language, and extreme one-liners. These are all extremely click-able and shareable.

There are also certain fonts, spacing styles, and logo silhouettes that have gained notoriety and a reputation. When the uninitiated see those or any that even remotely resemble those, their brains think it’s valid and fact-checked.

Fact checking in Pakistan is a lost cause

With the text and image placements, you have to take this news seriously! (Source: GazetteNow)

And then, it never hurts to add a little more of a garnish on it: Sponsor the post, run efficient SEO on it, and voila. Soon enough, its organic and sponsored reach will get armchair thought leaders sharing it in no time!

“Anything that has a picture, a graph, or a video, goes viral very quickly!” – Amber Rahim Shamsi

The Deliberate Weaponization of Disinformation in Asia

Since its so useful, we would expect those with agendas to naturally exploit systemic disinformation campaigns.

“Raise Petrol Prices by 12pm!”

Amber Rahim Shamsi chronicled a workshop at her beoved CEJ. The workshop, ironically based around fact checking, provided a moment where a reporter made a sarcastic quip aimed at a high-ranking government official to the tune of “(I think) this means that the petrol prices will rise by 12pm?”.

Some media organizations heard that, took it to be a fact, and ran tickers announcing the revelation to the country. This resulted in a mad midday rush at petrol stations across the nation.

There was no ambiguity in the sarcasm of the original statement; however, with an increase in petrol prices, there is a significant narrative shift. Hence, the report was deliberate. This was a media-led disinformation campaign.

Different Country, Same Problem

Like we said, this isn’t a Pakistan-specific problem. Disinformation campaigns are (mis)used to sway public opinion and sow hatred. Across the border, in India, PFI, Popular Front of India has suffered the same fate.

The organization that works to protect the marginalized segments of India was protesting the arrest of 100 of its leading members. In said protest, they shouted a slogan that said “Popular Front Zindabad”. To the untrained ear, this can sound like “Pakistan Zindabad”.

The right-wing ruling party took this story and ran with it. Since support for Pakistan is generally frowned upon in the country, BJP blamed the PFI of supporting its biggest supposed rivals, attempting to sway public opinion against the PFI.

How do we Subscribe to Irreponsible Outlets?

Shaheryar Popalzai, Head of MarCom at PureVPN, discussed how easy it is for the Pakistani populace to subscribe to irresponsible/propaganda spreading platforms.

It’s no secret that we’re starved for positive news about the country. So when we read anything that seems even remotely positive, we find the need to tell everyone else.

Like what? Something as small as ‘Pakistani hired as engineer at Google’. We will see this, share the news, and follow the page. This same page will then continue to fill our feeds with fake news and clickbait titles.

Its these sort of actions that continue to shape individual opinions and as a result, whole households. Again, it’s a psychology problem – our never-ending hunt for dopamine.

What Role Does Technology Play?

The moderator at +92Disrupt, Jahanzaib Haque, found himself pleading for optimism.

“There has to be an app to solve this whole problem!” – Jahanzaib Haque

Unfortunately, Shaheryar Popalzai was not too optimistic about Pakistan’s use of technology to solve the mis/disinformation problem.

Firstly, he explained how we don’t even have newsroom teams trained to conduct basic fact checking – this is a gap on the educational side of proceedings.

Having said that, with news organizations, it is also important to have reporters and writers who have an inherent eye to identify things that may just seem wrong.

With these prerequisites in place, we can start focusing on the technology aspect behind fact checking.

Shaheryar did discuss using tech solutions to supervise twitter propaganda. But the problem with that was also that the volumes of news to fact check was immense. So we end up fact checking stuff that is too late to fact-check.

Going back to what Zarrar said about those who will believe what they want to and the fact that the technology can never help us fact check something before the damage is done, the entire ordeal feels like fighting a losing battle.