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Manipulating consent

The advent of information technology was rightly hailed as a game-changing development. No other scientific intervention in history has revolutionized the manner of human interaction and thought formation the way the development of information and communication technologies has.

Among other things, it empowered a regular, common person and gave him/her power to shape events. As monopoly on information gave way to its democratization, a regular person could no longer be ignored in the emerging scheme of things. S/he was no more a passive ‘zombie’ ready to be manipulated but a shaper of events who acquired freedom to assert his/her agency to influence decision-making.

While the positive impact of the information revolution is well-documented, the deluge of its harmful effects has begun to overwhelm the entirety of human life. A combination of ongoing global challenges such as proliferating geostrategic conflicts, and natural disasters has provided a fertile ground for the spread of misinformation, fake news and disinformation. In the absence of an agreed-upon code of conduct owned and adhered to by the stakeholders within the information echo system, the dangers of information manipulation are becoming more dire and graver by the day.

Disinformation, fake news and misinformation represent the innovative and unconventional threats to the civilized world. The urgency of dealing with these challenges cannot be overemphasized. As the global crises deepen in the absence of long-term solutions, fake news and disinformation have begun to be deployed strategically. The consequences these strategic campaigns lead to are not just the intended ones; rather as has been witnessed in many instances, they have the potential to bring about outcomes that erode the people’s trust in the governments.

Mercifully, the global conversation has now begun to center on information integrity as a way to deal with and neutralize the harmful effects of disinformation. Efforts are underway at both the national and multilateral levels to achieve some level of uniformity in thinking on countering the spread of disinformation through a code of conduct, which puts the interest of the people at the heart of such endeavours.

However, this is easier said than done. Formulating an agreed-upon code of conduct to ensure information integrity on digital platforms is a stupendous challenge. Those who are wary of such exercises base their opposition on the plea that they are often attempts at ‘regulating’ the generation and flow of information.

While the debate around what constitutes information integrity, including how to set up voluntary mechanisms to uphold it on digital places will remain inclusive, there are certain aspects of this debate that crystalize the need for corrective measures to allow people access to accurate, reliable and authentic information. The following is instructive in this regard:

First: Given its potential to inflict widespread harm, the issue of disinformation, hate speech and fake news needs to be analyzed, debated and addressed from the perspective of human rights. Doing so will inject the urgency, and seriousness into our efforts we need the most to arrive at workable solutions.

Second: Our recent experience suggests that in addition to non-state actors who thrive on a culture of misinformation, state actors too have been found involved in deploying fake news as part of disinformation campaigns to mislead and misinform the international community. The busting of a vast, clandestine disinformation network by EU Disinfo Lab in 2021 indicated the depth and scale of the challenge. Our multilateral forums are more prone to such targeted campaigns.

Third: Allied to this is the more potent threat of muzzling of the freedom of expression when some states choose to impose information blackout, institute digital surveillance and target journalistic voices that dare report the truth. This is done as part of a carefully crafted strategy to play down human rights abuses. There is a need to attend to the denial of the right to freely express oneself especially in occupied territories such as IIOJK, declared so by the UN resolutions. It is important to set parameters that allow the people to distinguish between what is a UN-sanctioned struggle for right to self-determination and what is not. This issue needs to be approached from a non-partisan manner. Fourth: Digital spaces are most vulnerable. There is all the more reason to accelerate our work on formulating a code of conduct to ensure information integrity in digital spaces. There is no denying the fact that it is a difficult task, given the diversity, and complication that such an endeavor presents.

Fifth: Stakeholders run the risk of operating in silos if they don’t work out a mechanism to co-opt the major digital platforms and include their buy-in. The enormity of the challenge is understandable here but without some kind of bridge-building with the tech sector, the desired results may not wholly be achieved.

Sixth: Given the current rate at which hate speech, Islamophobia, racial profiling and discrimination are being spread in traditional media in general and the digital spaces in particular, there are real and present dangers to humanity’s shared values of peace, tolerance, pluralism and respect for diversity. The conditions of social order, stability and the rule of law have not been challenged as before. The ensuing chaos has global implications. While the work done so far to stem the rising tide of xenophobia and hate speech is praiseworthy, a lot more still needs to be done.

Seventh: Digital literacy can be a key factor in increasing the awareness of the people, especially the youth, empowering them to sift fact from fiction. A multilateral effort is needed to formulate modules, guidelines and lessons that can be a starting point to promote digital literacy.

Eighth: The world is saddened by the recent killing of over three dozen journalists in the line of duty in Palestine. More importantly, the reports of some TV channels taking down their anchors presumably due to their faith and known positions on the Israel-Palestine issue are deeply concerning. Add to this the issue of embedded journalism whose most recent manifestation was the spread of “filtered and curated” news by the Israeli army. The multilateral efforts to formulate a unanimous code of conduct should address these aspects of information manipulation.

In conclusion, diligent efforts are needed in effectively conveying information on a broad spectrum of ongoing crises, including critical issues like climate change and natural disasters. These endeavours have underscored the vital role of media outlets as a reliable source of accurate and unbiased information, thus highlighting the need for investment in building their in-house capacity for fact-checking and training the journalists. They can no longer evade this responsibility of stepping up to the plate.

Addressing the scourge of disinformation, fake news and misinformation needs to be assigned the highest priority at multiple levels. In the absence of determined and sustained corrective actions, disinformation will upend the life we have known so far, thus reversing human gains and releasing genies that will be hard to be bottled back.

The starting point in this war on disinformation is to promote awareness by beginning to talk about it.

Amanat Ali Chaudhry, "Manipulating consent," The News. 2023-11-13.
Keywords: Social sciences , International community , Human rights , Islamophobia , Journalism , Israel , Palestine , IIOJK