Media and misinformation
As we move into 2022, the media in Pakistan faces a number of challenges in terms of its functioning as well as its freedom. Both are inter-linked as well. Like the rest of the world, we can see that the print media is gradually giving way to digital media. This was bound to happen. What was surprising, however, was the prime place that the print media held in the country in the first place given our poor literacy rate. But this possibly had to do with the fact that in the first fifty years of Pakistan, radio and television remained firmly in state control. That is why most people had to turn to newspapers for an alternative viewpoint. Newspapers were also seen as reliable and authentic sources of information, with print journalists cited for their credibility.
Possibly much of this changed when the broadcast media was opened up to the private sector post-1988 and post-1999 and the unhealthy operation of more than 40 national news channels led to the breaking news syndrome where the usual practice is resorting to sensationalism to raise ratings.
Now it seems that the days of television may also be numbered. Audiences are shifting. And with them will shift advertising revenues. Millennials and Generation Y want news on the go. In bite size pieces. And in the form of opinion at times. This makes most traditional newspersons shudder.
Money has to be made, regardless of platform. This remains the biggest challenge for digital enterprises. There is still no one business model that can guarantee profits for them. I recall attending a media summit in Germany two years back where most media owners and editors kept scratching their heads to come up with the right formula on how to keep their entities afloat.
The one thing we know is that the market is changing. Advertising money is now coming into the digital arena. In fact, advertising revenue rose by 50 per cent over the previous year for Pakistani digital platforms, claim some analysts. The growth of internet users in Pakistan can give some idea of such trends. There were 61.34 million internet users in Pakistan in January 2021, which is an increase of 11 million (21%) over the previous year. At the same time, potential for growth can be gauged from the fact that internet penetration in Pakistan stood at 27.5% in January 2021. There is vast opportunity for growth.
It gets more interesting. There were 46 million social media users in Pakistan in January 2021, which is an increase of 9 million (24%) over the previous year. This means that the number of social media users in Pakistan was equivalent to 20.6% of the total population in January 2021. Analysts also point to the phenomenal growth of TikTok in Pakistan, especially in 2020, when Covid was at its peak and millions were twiddling their thumbs at home.
But what does this mean for all of us? To begin with, the rise of social media. Post-2016, social media has started taking up space that mainstream media surrendered owing to growing censorship. With the passage of time, the screws on the mainstream media — particularly revenue pressures — were tightened, which meant that many stories could only be accessed through social media platforms.
The problem in this new era of information is that social media have no reliable checks or balances. Granted that Twitter has its verified accounts and that many international platforms act on the spread of false news, but by and large it is a jungle out there. And in the jungle, the biggest predator is fake news.
In 2020, the biggest problem for Pakistan will be the proliferation of fake news and disinformation. This can come from domestic sources or international quarters. We have before us the Indian Chronicles, which is an example of how an operation was conducted over a period of 15 years to discredit Pakistan in the eyes of the European Union and the world at large.
Are we prepared for this onslaught? Probably not. It is time to think about developing a strategy to protect the hapless and trusting average Pakistani whose belief in conspiracy theories strengthens with each passing day. It is time for a mature response to this problem and not the half-baked measures we have seen in the past.
Source: Express Tribune Opinion & Editorial (By: Kamal Siddiqi)