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Media Literacy – Newspaper – DAWN.COM


SHOCKING. Sinister. Sanctionable. There are many ways to describe the network of anti-Pakistani Indian-affiliated NGOs and fake media organizations uncovered by the EU DisinfoLab. These are the “cyber nuclear weapons” that define the conflict of the 21st century. And it is time for Pakistan to develop a coherent response to the challenge of disinformation.

Our politicians and security agencies, who previously warned against India’s “fifth generation warfare” to undermine Pakistan, feel vindicated. You will now feel doubly justified in preventing any criticism of the Pakistani state on the basis of shameful Indian conspiracies. The state was already on the way to crushing freedom of expression in the name of protecting national security and institutions.

But the threat of disinformation requires a more advanced and holistic response. There is a risk that Pakistan will politicize the concept of disinformation and view it narrowly as a national security issue. But disinformation is a broader challenge that affects all areas (e.g., the world is preparing for the wave of disinformation that could undermine Covid-19 vaccination efforts).

Pakistan’s discomfort with debates also increases the risk that stakeholders will label whatever contradicts them as fake news, further undermining the quality of national discourse and diminishing trust in institutions and processes.

The challenge is not just to separate fact from fiction.

The best approach to combating disinformation is to strengthen media literacy – opting for empowerment over oppression, critical evaluation over censorship.

As the information landscape becomes more complex, everyone needs solid skills to recognize disinformation: the ability to identify sources and assess their credibility; Synthesize and reconcile information from multiple sources; understand the context in which information is produced; analyze the economic drivers for the dissemination of information; and share information in a responsible and transparent manner.

Media literacy is best taught through the curriculum at primary, secondary and college levels. In order to survive and thrive in the 21st century, citizens need this fundamental skill, the development of which must be built into all other disciplines. Pakistan has not and is unlikely to prioritize new media skills in its national curriculum, as this literacy requires the very qualities that are perceived as problematic by our state and society: critical thinking, skepticism, analysis.

One of the most striking aspects of the EU DisinfoLab’s findings is that fake news published by fake media was then amplified by credible media outlets, including India’s largest intelligence service. While the public must be media literate, the bar for journalists is particularly high. The pressures of the 24/7 news cycle, lack of continuous professional training, and resource constraints – and in some cases overt government pressure – mean mainstream news agencies are also vulnerable to the spread of disinformation. This needs to stop as newsrooms continue to prioritize fact-finding and verification to maintain credibility.

But the challenge is not to distinguish fact from fiction. The most persuasive misinformation is that which is factually correct, but is sometimes used or phrased in a misleading or agenda-setting way. We have to ask ourselves why and how information was produced and who benefits from its dissemination.

Such analysis requires real technical skills ranging from basic digital skills to an understanding of how online algorithms work, how revenue is generated by technology platforms, and the impact of all of this on online content. Media literacy of this magnitude requires firm political commitment and investment.

Currently, the responsibility for increasing media literacy lies with the large digital platforms themselves. After disinformation spread via WhatsApp led to local violence in India, for example, the platform took part in a training campaign aimed at 100,000 Indians. In 2019, Google expanded the curriculum for its digital safety offering for children, “Be Internet Awesome”, to include media literacy. And Twitter is now flagging false or misleading tweets. But recognizing the agendas of platforms, the limits of their “red flag” systems, and the economic motivations behind their selective approach to information moderation is itself an important topic of media literacy.

Media literacy critics say that skills make suspicion the standard mode of information consumers. This is potentially counterproductive at a time when another challenge is to restore trust in institutions, experts, data and traditional media. Question everything, and even the credible becomes doubtful. This triggers a vicious circle of paranoia, which increases the susceptibility to co-optation by radical, right-wing or other interest groups. No doubt there is a balance to be found. But empowering people to understand their information-saturated world is the only way forward.

The author is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, December 14, 2020


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