Have faith in facts – 23 Jan 2023

I SUSPECT many will agree about the benefits of a digital detox, ie a break from the constant stream of information on mobile devices. I enjoyed my break last week disconnected from devices, uncompelled to reply to every message, relishing the quiet that winter up north brings. But it was just that, a break, and my return to reality coincided with news of journalist Shahid Aslam`s detention by FIA.

Aslam is being accused of involvement in an article by Fact Focus that reported on former army chief Gen Bajwa`s assets.

Ahmad Noorani, who wrote the article, denied Aslam`s involvement. But that did not matter to the FIA.

I was able to ascertain these details thanks to the reporting on legacy news outlets because social media was its usual cesspool of unreliability lots of opinion parading as information. Facts don`t sell or get shared –the way opinions do. An MIT study in 2018 showed that lies spread six times faster than fact.

Aslam was granted bail on Wednesday but his case is a reminder of how those actually in power have no respect for the law-egthe2021Protectionof Journalists and Media Professionals Bill which accords journalists the right to protect sources. The same powers don`t support journalism unless it sides with their interests. How can journalism ever support any institute that so flagrantly disregards people`s right to information? Unfortunately, folks posing as journal ists have done more to destroy the institute they pretend to serve. That`s why I`m recommending they, their handlers, and anyone interested in journalism read Maria Ressa`s How to Stand Up to a Dictator.

The Nobel laureate`s book is part memoir and, as the Guardian noted, `part manifesto` on journalism`s role in exposing misuse of power. For Ressa, this means shining a light on the abuse of power by former president Rodrigo Duterte and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. It`s disconcerting to learn how Facebook undermined democracy in the Philippines and how Duterte used social media`s engagement algorithms to his advantage and society`s detriment.

This is what makes social media so dangerous, especially if you rely on it as your primary source of news. Social media platforms want you to keep scrolling on their sites because that`s what earns them the big bucks. They favour moneymaking over public safety, she writes. Facebook revenues were $120.18 billion, up by 40 per cent from the year before.

What social media is doing is similar to rewarding children for lying. Facts are just not cool. Because facts don`t get the sameamplification that opinions do, you see results like Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos come to power nearly 30 years after his father was ousted following a massive civilian resistance movement in 1986. While the Philippines is not the only country where people are voting for illiberal leaders, Rappler`s reporting shows how information shared on social media networks from 2014 paved the way for Marcos` ascent. The same is true for Trump, Modi, Khan etc.

The PTI social media juggernaut is unstoppable and doesn`t let facts get in the way of its indomitability. I mean, it has its own set of facts. Other parties are no different. Everyone is in their own silos.

Journalists are the enemies unless they`re parroting the party (of your choice) line.

This doesn`t sound like democracy.

In its report last year, Freedom House found `autocracy is making gains against democracy and encouraging more leaders to abandon the democratic path to security and prosperity`. This is just one consequence of a business model that profits from the spread of hatred over accurateinformation.

Ressa`s book proves how social media platforms` insidious manipulation wreaks havoc. There`s no legislation totackle Silicon Valley`s designs either.

What then can be done? Could we take a leaf from China which created a different version of TikTok for its citizens with safeguards in place for children? `And exported the opioid version to the rest of the world,` Ressa said last month. Since bans are futile, what can regulation look like? Can it be as simple as Ressa proposes which is changing the design of how news/ information is delivered? Ressa`s rallying cry may not have created the impact she hoped for but on Wednesday, she and Rappler were acquitted of tax evasion. `Today, facts win, truth wins, justice wins,` she told the media.

The victory is a reminder that journalists can become gatekeepers of information again, they can reclaim space from big tech. We need to remind people that there is accountability in journalism unlike in social media. I hope Shahid Aslam and other journalists can take some solace knowing their important work can wield results and it`s a battle worth fighting for.

Our credibility depends on it. • The writer is a co-producer and co-host of On/Off The Record, a podcast on the news media landscape in Pakistan.

Twitter: @LedeingLady

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