The ever-looming threat of disinformation in Pakistan

2024 is surely the biggest global election year in history so far as about 60 countries around the world will hold elections.

Eyes are on major economies like Russia, India, USA, United Kingdom, and European Union that will also determine the alteration of the geopolitics of the next decade.

But looming over the polls like a dark cloud is one danger that democracies are, or should be, wary of.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently warned that misinformation and disinformation is a grave threat to the democratic process. This challenge cannot only mislead and influence the opinions of potential voters in already polarised societies, but also “disrupt” economies and even “trigger civil unrest and confrontation”.

Additionally, with access to Artificial Intelligence (AI), deep fake videos, photoshopped images, voice cloning and illegitimate internet websites are a major hindrance in ensuring free elections and security.

While AI is meant to serve in public’s advantage, it has been exploited in the worst possible ways.

To give the most recent example, the Financial Times revealed in a report that a number of AI-generated videos were used during the days leading to the election day in Bangladesh to spread disinformation against the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the U.S. This put in question the integrity of the Bangladeshi government in ensuring free and fair elections.

Disinformation and Pakistan

Since the ouster of former prime minister Imran Khan in April 2022 through a vote of no confidence, he has been in and out of court due to cases related to the diplomatic cipher, toshakhana gifts, his marriage to Bushra Bibi and more. Now jailed for 14 years, Khan and his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf are out of the election however, his party members are independently bearing the flag and have been campaigning for votes.

Always being ahead of the campaigning game, PTI has conducted virtual jalsas after getting banned from holding in-person assemblies. The party went a step further by putting up an AI generated speech in the voice of Imran Khan.

So while PTI has been “innovative” in their use of social media since the party has not been allowed to fully carry out their political activities, editor at Geo Fact Check, Benazir Shah, believes that with the lack of regulation in the use of AI, it poses a serious threat in a weak democracy like Pakistan.

According to DataReportal, with a population of 238.1 million (as of January 2023), and 87.35 million internet users at the start of 2023, Pakistan has been home to 71.70 million social media users i.e. 30.1 percent of the total population.

Considering the large number of users residing in the country, Hyra Basit, Cyber Harassment Lead at Digital Rights Foundation, asserts that widespread disinformation is primarily linked with lack of digital literacy among the general public. She explains that while media usage is seeped into people’s daily lives, there is no concept of double checking.

In the recent past, posts on social media circulated with videos from Aurat March 2021 falsely transcripted to blasphemous slogans, deeming the movement as sacrilegious. FIRs were filed against the officials while some women went into hiding due to threats.

By the time the misleading videos were countered and fact-checked, disinformation had already spread to a wide audience since disinformation tends to spread more quickly than facts.

Responsibility and Solution

Journalist Umar Cheema believes that when it comes to countering disinformation, the responsibility largely falls on media as fact-checking is considered one of its domains. Over and above, whenever the state has brought about laws in countering disinformation, it has directly affected journalists in the shape of censorship.

“We need a paradigm shift in thinking”, he states. “[As journalists] We have learned to question and speak, but we do not know how to find a solution — because it is not considered a part of our duty. However, we must also learn to bring about solutions since disinformation as well as censorship affects us directly.”

He also points at media platforms and independent journalists who report information without verifying and counter questioning interviewees, and how the use of click-baits also fall in the ambit of disinformation.

“Our journalism should move beyond this [cursory journalism] or else there is no difference between a layperson and a journalist”, he says.

However, along with media platforms and fact-checkers, Benzair Shah considers the civil society responsible for ensuring truth in information sharing.

“When I say “collective effort”, it doesn’t only include journalists, state, and the civil society but especially young people who actively use social media and need to use it more responsibly.

“The question arises with fact-checking is that how do we pre-bunk disinformation — to ensure [it beforehand] that there is authentic information out there,” she points out.

She highlights easily available and accessible tools like Google reverse image search that can be used to verify videos and images circulating social media apps.

Similarly, Hyra Basit asserts that if disinformation in Pakistan is to be countered, “you have to educate and equip people receiving information so they can accept to reject mis/disinformation, question and verify the information they receive.

Over and above, users need to understand what disinformation is and how they can protect themselves from it.”

Executive director for Media Matters for Democracy, Asad Baig, underlines that while there are organisations actively countering disinformation in Pakistan, they are not enough and will take a while to establish their footprint on the internet.

“We need to take a holistic approach towards solving problems around disinformation. Initiatives taken for, for example, elections are temporary and act like a bandaid for a short while.

“It is important to realise that the challenges for the media in countering disinformation will remain the same before and after the elections as they are right now”.

Leave a Reply