Over the past three months, a handful of highly influential news celebrities have left no stone unturned in support of the PTI and former prime minister Imran Khan. They have taken narratives about conspiracy and corruption to new heights. One of the most prominent of these individuals was arrested in highly choreographed fashion earlier this week. The charges against him, and others of his ilk, are certainly not to be taken lightly. Sedition is top of the list.
The ‘repression’ against these celebrities has only served to make their stars soar further; the claims of conspiracy becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can cry ourselves hoarse insisting that they are not genuine journalists but hypocrites who validated injustice and oppression during the PTI’s tenure. Like it or not, however, these celebrities are now larger-than-life figures who will continue to greatly shape public opinion in our mediatised present and future.
It has been some years now that the term ‘fake news’ became common parlance around the world. Ideological claims and fantasies now regularly masquerade as objective facts, especially in highly politicised digital spaces.
My sense is that we are never likely to return to the world that existed before ‘fake’ became the new real. It is in any case worth reminding ourselves that states, reactionaries and even progressives throughout the modern age have dedicated time, energy and resources to propagating certain ideological narratives to suit their purposes. The current epoch is distinct because digitalisation has expanded the means of ideological warfare and billions of individual ‘users’ have become both consumers and producers of ideological content.
Fantasies now masquerade as facts.
The transformation of the ideological terrain — both in the realm of politics and the shaping of popular culture more generally — deserves far more attention than most on the left of the political spectrum have dedicated to it till now. Otherwise well-meaning progressives who seek to debunk ‘fake news’ by engaging in pitched battles with ideological adversaries on social media platforms can end up actually providing fodder to reactionaries.
Put differently, the political right has successfully deployed sensationalist narratives, including ‘fake news’, so as to secure its objectives. A plethora of right-wing regimes fronted by iconoclasts with huge followings on social media have acquired governmental power over the past decade. Imran Khan and PTI are our own examples.
Meanwhile, the political left’s success stories are fewer and far between. Yes, Trump got booted out in the US, and Boris Johnson is on his way out in the UK. But Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have no chance of being voted into power. Here in Pakistan, progressives have at best been able to fend off vilification campaigns based on fake news, the most notable example being the efforts of Aurat Azadi March organisers in Islamabad after ludicrous blasphemy cases were filed against them in the wake of Women’s Day events last year. Every once in a while, Baloch and other victims of forced disappearances return after a vibrant social media campaign.
Such resistance to state, class, gendered and religious repression is necessary, but not sufficient. This should now be clearer than ever with the rapid bursting of the PDM/PPP ‘democracy’ bubble. Neither has the government which replaced PTI been able and or willing to push back against the militarisation of state and society, nor has it offered a meaningful programme of wealth redistribution to challenge IMF-led austerity and powerful landed, manufacturing and other capitalist lobbies in Pakistan.
Indeed, irrespective of what ends up happening to these influential news celebrities mentioned earlier, the continuing popularity of their narratives — and PTI more generally — makes clear that the objective conditions for the political right to continue profiting from fake news in general, and social media mobilisation in particular, remain as ripe as ever.
Progressives must certainly continue to deploy social media to further their causes. But the truth is that there is no united left in this country that can puncture the hegemonic mainstream in which the establishment runs a merry-go-round and politicians indebted to big lobbies alternate turns in government.
Such a leftist alternative cannot be forged on social media, not least of all because progressives active in digital spaces tend to spar with one another as much as reactionaries. Contrast our current plight to Latin America, where both rural and urban working masses have made common cause with indigenous rights movements, struggles against gender oppression and anti-imperialist leftists around both issues of redistribution and recognition. Organising on the ground has then been scaled up through digital spaces. This is what we need here if we want to challenge bogus celebrities, fake news and avoid a dramatic race to the bottom.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.