In late spring this year, a rumour was in full swing, becoming a fake news story about children dying from polio vaccines in Mashokhel, an impoverished village on the outskirts of Peshawar city in northwestern Pakistan. It triggered panic and chaos.
While polio vaccination teams were busy administering vaccines to children, WhatsApp groups, Facebook and Twitter were abuzz with dreadful hearsay that drove parents onto the streets with screaming babies in their arms. Hoards of them flooded the city's hospitals, causing traffic jams on busy roads nearby.
At least 40,000 children were admitted to various hospitals in the following hours, according to the government. And none of them had any serious medical conditions.
But the rumour-turned-fake-news was strong enough to culminate in full-blown violence. In one village, a mob of around 250 people went on a rampage, vandalising public property and burning down an old, decrepit hospital building.
Pakistan grapples with its own set of problems stemming from the fake news epidemic. It has caused a deadly impact on a society where despite its embrace of technology, word-of-mouth still carries greater value.
In Pakistan today, according to the Telecommunication Authority, out of a population of 200 million, 68 million people have subscribed to 3G and 4G mobile networks, while 70 million households have broadband subscriptions.
Political parties and religious groups based on different ethnicities and interpretations of Islamic laws and traditions are increasingly using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to drive their campaigns. Many among these groups not only run smear campaigns against their opponents but also forge the logos, mastheads, and layouts of popular news organisations to doctor fake news.
In one instance, the masthead of an English language newspaper the Express Tribune was used to target a prominent female human rights activist. On a Facebook page modelled on the Express Tribune's page a picture of the activist was posted with a caption that she had contracted HIV-AIDS. The activist was quick to rebut the claim.
In another case, the masthead of Pakistan’s newspaper of record Dawn was used to spread fake news claiming Afghanistan had accepted the Durand Line as an official border. Afghanistan does not accept the Durand Line, a 2,000 kilometre border between the two countries drawn by a British colonial official Mortimer Durand in 1890s. Dawn newspaper later issued a rejoinder stating that the report was forged.
“We have adopted a strict mechanism to cross-check and verify the information coming from social media," said Naveed Hussain, editor of the Express Tribune. "We don't run any news that comes from the social media unless we get it verified through our reporters and sources,” Hussain said.
Jahanzaib Haque, an editor at Dawn, echoed a similar point of view.
“It’s about to go very big," he said. "I don’t think the full ‘potential’ of fake news has been recognised by bad actors locally, but they are waking up to it, especially as the internet penetration grows; the internet is the ideal medium for fake news.”
Though Pakistan's major news organisations are quick to deny fake news that is visible on social media platforms and attributed to them, the plague spreads fast via WhatsApp and similar other mobile messaging apps.
“On social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter it is rather easy to rebut such forgeries; however, when it comes to WhatsApp it is next to impossible to know such items’ authenticity,” said Nighat Dad, Head of advocacy group Digital Rights Foundation.
Dad says that Pakistan enacted the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) in 2016 to monitor the flow of information and ensure false and untrue accounts are disabled.
The law has its shortcomings, however.
The Federal Investigation Agency, which is responsible for tackling offences under the PECA, lacks the resources and expertise to monitor the booming social media sphere.
“To be honest, I do not see any light at the tunnel right now,” Dad said, adding that the only way out is to increase digital literacy at a school level.
A social media activist affiliated with a leading political party who did not want to be identified, rather frankly admitted that they are paid to precisely to spread fake news and engage in online smear campaigns against rivals.
“Our public is not aware of the fake news game and we cash this lack of knowledge," he said. "Even well-educated people fall prey to fake news on social media.”
The first step is to create content full of false claims or half- truths and then package it as news. The WhatsApp application is the first channel used to send malicious content to the groups affiliated to political parties. Their IT cells litter other groups and the content eventually lands on Facebook and Twitter through both genuine accounts and paid trolls.
In October last year, Pakistan’s ministry of information and broadcasting launched the Twitter account Fake News Buster devoted to fighting fake news. In less than 24 hours, another Twitter account with the same name popped up. The ministry was insulted and ridiculed until the fake account was taken down.
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on Media, Iftikhar Durrani, said that although the government has developed means and laws to punish people involved in cybercrimes, the scourge of fake news is overwhelming and too large in its scope.
"No one can control the cyber world," he said. "We are taking action against culprits in the country and we have the prevention of electronic crimes law under which the actions are taken.”
Since social media websites like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are not answerable to the Pakistani government, if someone misuses them, Durrani said: “We can only request them for removing an account or material and it takes time to get the request attended.”