Traditional Press vs. Social Media during Covid-19

A parallel regime of information or disinformation?

The United Nations celebrates the World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) to commemorate journalists and media practitioners who risk and often lose their lives in line of work, while seeking truth and justice to strengthen our right to know and express. The WPFD is only 3-decades-old but the struggle of journalists is more than 3-centuries-old—unveiling truth, fighting for justice and protecting rights of people.

“Today with the serious possibility of manipulation of our opinions and our decision-making by fake news, we as a society are at serious risk of a hybrid war on our collective conscience. We have to develop tools to grapple with it.”, wrote Mr. Arif Alvi, the President of Pakistan, in an op-ed while discussing disinformation and the role of journalists.

According to Reporters Without Borders, the World Press Freedom Index 2020, which is the extent of freedom of press, has not improved in South Asia. With rankings ranging from 127 to 151 out of 180 countries, the declining trend in freedom of press, journalistic safety and state of independent media in South Asia needs further analysis.

Keeping this decline in freedom of information and press in view, the Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom South Asia is particularly focusing on developing content and free resources for civil stakeholders, including journalists and young professionals to increase flow of reliable information and communication. In their recent analysis titled, ‘How to Counter Fake News’, Dr Philipp Müller and Nora Denner define fake news, explore its creation, proliferation and impact.

The access to information, and freedom of expression through internet, particularly on social media in the 21st century has undergone quite a revolution. However, it has also increased the challenges for the provision of reliable information.

Traditional media houses in Pakistan—newspapers and magazines morphing into TV channels—that relied on sound fact-checking and source integrity, have come under increasing financial pressures. Firstly, government subsidies or advertisement spending has reduced. Secondly, the consumer tastes have evolved, craving for interactive media like social media, online access to newspapers and YouTube videos of news highlights and breaking news. Many people are not willing to pay for newspapers anymore. This phenomenon is not limited to Pakistan, globally the entire media industry is going through consolidation due to financial constraints. Media houses are closing and journalists are losing jobs. A few remaining ones cannot do fact-checking while keeping up with the fast pace of news from various sources.

As gatekeepers of information integrity reduce in number and social media usage continues to increase, the instances of disinformation keep going up. The social media allows people to access and share information by any source but this so-called revaluation has become a source of unverified information as per journalistic yardstick.

In simple terms, people do not question any information, picture, tweet, or a text received from a friend or a contact. Such messages are shared without verifying a source, its truth or intent. Eventually, this social media ‘news’ sharing habit has put the entire communication and information regime—both traditional media and social media—at stake.

The current health crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic, has made people realize the importance of free press and responsible reporting, and the menace of the parallel regime of social media consumption. The disinformation on the internet and social media has exploded during this pandemic.

Interestingly, there appears to be a correlation between media freedom and the response of nations to the Covid-19 pandemic. Countries with considerable media freedom when compared with countries with supressed media, are fighting the outbreak of coronavirus differently. This means the crisis comes with a set of challenges as well as opportunities. In authoritarian regimes, it provides a reason to further control and manipulate information and place checks on people’s freedom, whereas for democratic governments it provides opportunities to seek more support from their citizens through informed and coordinated efforts.

In the end, it is not just governments that are a threat to the freedom of press. Our individual and social behaviour also hinders the flow of freedom of information whenever we pass unverified information to others.