Fake news and deception on social media

It has been known for years that people lose money to hackers and cheats on the Internet. We now know that even elections have been won or lost, careers made or destroyed, in fact lives have been ruined or cut short through organised and targeted manipulation of and on social media.  …  The masses are duped into believing anything that they are served, especially if these sound sensational or reinforce their own beliefs, prejudices and politico-religious inclinations.

(Published in Daily Times, 30 October 2019)

We now live in a new world of fake news, abusive comments, malicious innuendo, deception and self-deception.  Their creators and authors – pursuing a wicked agenda – ply their wares on social media mostly incognito or under false identities. They remain totally unaccountable.

The masses – simple, gullible and a trifle self-serving – are duped into believing anything that they are served, especially if these sound sensational. When these conform with and reinforce their own beliefs, prejudices and politico-religious inclinations, people instantly bond with them, like butterfly to flower.

Knowledge has now become too easily accessible and virtually free. Consequently, it has also lost its value. There was a time when, to satisfy one’s curiosity about anything, one went to a good library. Libraries being extremely rare in Third World countries, most people asked someone with a reputation for knowledge, usually a teacher or a professor. Acquiring knowledge was a time-consuming and painstaking process.

Governments held a tight monopoly over news. Breaking news didn’t exist, news blackout was normal. Information was made available intermittently at the government’s discretion, laced with misinformation.

Rumour, spread by word of mouth, travelled a hundred times faster than fact even in the old days. But in this new age of smartphones, fake news and deep fakes are able to circumnavigate the world many times in the few minutes it takes us to read serious headline news.

Information in every field is now available at the touch of a finger on the smartphone at any time of day and night, in any language and anywhere in the world. But rare is the person who actually quenches his thirst from this miracle-fountain of knowledge.

Instead, the smartphone is usually a thing for the silly season: a conveyor of greetings, anniversaries, congratulatory messages, jokes and funny or sexy videos. On the serious side, the smartphone is a carrier of “sensational revelations”, which mostly consist of misinformation, slander and fake news.

Some of these are so obviously and unbelievably astonishing or malicious that one should immediately feel the urge to check their veracity and authenticity before believing them.

Instead, people not just believe but also disseminate fake news or slanderous photos far and wide through WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Instagram and the rest. And they do so with a great sense of urgency as if, by so doing, they can share some of the credit for the content.

All it takes to check their authenticity, in most cases, is a quick google search on the smartphone. But the vast majority falls for the most incredulous tale, innuendo or photo-shopped photo, if it supports their own point of view.

For me, the final provocation for this article was a ten-minute Urdu video that is accompanied by my sender’s own triumphant note: “See again how much democratic these so called democratic nations are”. Being partial to democracy and the liberal-democratic West, I immediately listened to this video, expecting to hear how Jews and/or Big Capital, not the US government, control America. But this was different.

The speaker identifies himself merely as one Dr Shabbir Ahmed and the date as 27 September 2010. He refers to a “recently declassified US government document” of its “foreign ministry”, claiming it “was also sent to me.”  It contains highly sensational and detailed “revelations” regarding the conspiracy to assassinate Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951.

These documents, according to Dr Ahmed, confirm that the United States, through its embassies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, organised a hit team to assassinate the Pakistani prime minister.

According to this account, Liaquat had angered President Truman by rudely refusing to become a US stooge. The conspiracy is described in spell-binding detail by the narrator and the audience is clearly made to believe that he is quoting from the recently declassified US government record.

My immediate reaction was to doubt the truth of the claim, for the information was so sensational that it would have attracted much greater publicity than this.

So, I made a google search with the words “Liaquat Ali Khan”, which led me to the relevant Wikipedia entry. In a section titled “Assassination”, it says: “An Urdu daily published in Bhopal, India, saw the US hand behind the assassination.”

All Wikipedia entries are properly footnoted, and the footnote to this sentence referred to an article by Syed Hussain in the Arab News of 18 July 2006, titled “Declassified Papers Shed Light on US Role in Liaquat’s Murder.” The plot seemed to be getting thicker. So I went to this source article itself merely by touching the link in the footnote on my smartphone.

What I found is that the “sensational” information about the “direct US role” in Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination is drawn from a now declassified message from the US Embassy in New Delhi to the Department of State in Washington on 30 October 1951. The message contains the translation of an article, published within about a week of the assassination, in “Nadeem”, an Urdu daily of Bhopal (India) on 24 October 1951.

Syed Hussain, writing in the Arab News, refers to the translation of the “Nadeem” article in the US embassy cable, putting his own spin to it.  Which, in turn, is narrated with great drama and embellishment by Dr Ahmed over four years later in the Urdu video. Both Hussain and Ahmed create the impression that the source of the startling revelations is the US government document itself, not the “Nadeem” article.

In transmitting a translation of the article to Washington within a week of its publication, the US embassy had merely done what all good embassies are tasked to do. And the US government had now done what it does regularly and meticulously, that is, to declassify and publish official government documents.

Using an unsubstantiated Indian journalist’s allegation, made many decades ago in a provincial Indian vernacular newspaper, Dr Shabbir Ahmed has spun a long yarn pandering to the propensity of his listeners to blame the US for every crime.

I may cite another example to emphasise the point I am trying to make. A few months ago, I received a photo of a flower of magical beauty, with the following caption:

“Mahameru Pushpangal. It’s seen in the Himalaya. It flowers once in 400 years. If we wanted to see it again we need to wait for another 400 years. So our generation is lucky. So please share maximum. Let others see it.”

The whole thing sounded a bit strange to me, for there was no mention of even the country where this plant is to be found. And if its flowering is indeed such a rare occurrence, why wouldn’t this news be splashed all over, rather than be transmitted through a WhatsApp message?

A quick google search led me to www.hoaxorfact.com which, after providing a history (with pictures) of this and many similar claims regarding very rare and beautiful flowers, categorically declared it to be a hoax.

It has been known for years that people lose money to hackers and cheats on the Internet. We now know that even elections have been won or lost, careers made or destroyed, in fact lives have been ruined or cut short through organised and targeted manipulation of and on social media.

I wish more people would use common sense and the google search engine on their ever-present smartphone to sift fact from fiction and news from fake news, rather than be fooled by sensational revelations, conspiracy theories and blatant hoaxes. If in doubt, better to let these sit than to circulate them with a missionary zeal.

by Razi Azmi



P.S: The Office of the Historian, Department of State of the United States, publishes declassified documents relating to foreign relations in a series called Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS). https://history.state.gov/
FRUS now comprises more than 450 volumes. Eight volumes were published in 2018, including one on Iran (1951-54), very crucial years in Iran-US relations.
The following introduction is copied from the official website:
“The Foreign Relations of the United States series presents the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity. The series, which is produced by the Department of State’s Office of the Historian, began in 1861 and now comprises more than 450 individual volumes. The volumes published over the last two decades increasingly contain declassified records from all the foreign affairs agencies.
“Foreign Relations volumes contain documents from Presidential libraries, Departments of State and Defense, National Security Council, Central Intelligence Agency, Agency for International Development, and other foreign affairs agencies as well as the private papers of individuals involved in formulating U.S. foreign policy. In general, the editors choose documentation that illuminates policy formulation and major aspects and repercussions of its execution. Volumes published during the last three decades have expanded the scope of the series by including documents from a wider range of government agencies, particularly those involved with intelligence activity and covert actions.
“Volumes in the series since 1952 are organized chronologically according to Presidential administrations, and geographically and topically within each subseries: 65 volumes cover the Nixon and Ford administrations (1969-1976), 32 cover the Carter administration (1977-1980), and about 49 are scheduled for the Reagan administration (1981-1988). Volumes on the George H.W. Bush administration are now being researched, annotated, and prepared for publication.
“Volumes may be purchased through the U.S. Government Publishing Office (202-512-1800). Recent volumes are also available online. For further information please contact the Office of the Historian.”


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9 Responses to Fake news and deception on social media

  1. Khalid Pathan says:

    Nice one, good suggestion.

  2. Jerry Pattengale says:

    This is an excellent article, and one of benefit to journalism classes. You write well, and have for decades.

    This summarizes well our state of affairs:

    “Knowledge has now become too easily accessible and virtually free. Consequently, it has also lost its value. “

    Of course we also need to revive logic classes and the sad reality of many discarding the Law of Non-Contradiction. Otherwise, even using vetted information we hear of some rather untenable conclusions.

  3. Arif says:

    Good one. The problem is multiplied in WhatsApp university. People are used to “thinking fast” rather than “slow” (Kahneman, 2012)

  4. Pradeep Kalra says:

    A very well written article. There is so much of nonsense on WhatsApp these days that people tend to believe whatever is sent to them. We all have become addicted to our smartphones and thus trust even the most silly piece of information. Using our commonsense and logic is now a thing of the past.

  5. Sami Syed says:

    Good article and very sound advice. Fake news has become a real menace. The best policy is not to forward anything, sensational or not. Just write your own message every time you send something.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Articles, news reports or videos from serious, reputable and well-known sources ought to be considered “halal”. WhatsApp allows us to forward stuff that we have chanced to read and would like others to read too. Used with common sense and discretion, WhatsApp sets up a kind of mini-library or a forum for exchange of serious ideas among friends or like-minded individuals.

      • Abdur Raziq says:

        Sir I also came across so-called classified information about Liaqat Ali Khan long ago but never believed in it.

        • Razi Azmi says:

          Nice to know someone had the common sense to doubt the authenticity of such sensational fake news. I am afraid you belong to the 0.01 percent of Pakistanis in this category. These days we don’t even have to rely on common sense, which may often fail the accuracy test. It is very easy to verify on the Internet with a google search. Wikipedia is pretty reliable, but there are various sources.

  6. Jacob Kipp says:

    This article deserves a broad readership. The author, I am proud to say was a former graduate student of mine. His topic is a very important one on the use of sources and the verification of their content. His suggestion about using common sense and discretion has great merit. Yes, I will share this article with friends and fellow scholars. Indeed, today I had the good fortune to see another former graduate student, who was a friend of Razi Azmi and now teaches at Ft. Hays University in Kansas. I am quite sure will enjoy this fine piece as much I did. I wish there were more voices like yours. This would be a far better world.

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