The newborn goliath of social media has obscured the basic principles of journalism and dictates of unbiased journalistic rigor indispensable for objective news reporting. It has become increasing difficult to get the truth in the face of innumerable contradictory reports on different issues. Conspiracies theorists have increased dramatically in numbers due to the fact that the general public is often at a loss as to what to believe and what to discard as propaganda. This issue has been triggered by the burgeoning smartphones that have almost replaced traditional news content providers. It becomes especially problematic at times of conflict where self-serving interest groups seek to divert attention with orchestrated falsehoods masquerading as mainstream news. It becomes then inevitable to spark a discourse as to why the vast number social media content producers fail to get to the crux of the matter in times of conflict and to explore the factors behind the deteriorating quality of the reporting in an age saturated with handheld mobile devices that boast the same functionality of a typical computer.

With the rapid developments in technological advancement, new means of reporting have emerged. While it is inherently a positive step for the delivery of impartial news, this, however, comes at a huge price. The multiplicity of news sources and increase in the number of journalists working through their mobile devices has compromised journalistic rigor as well as impaired the content of news. This has also made the traditional media houses more vulnerable towards the influence of pseudo journalists, news pundits and substandard news content. This phenomenon has reared its ugly head in Pakistan as well. Miscreants in some troubled areas in Balochistan and FATA have exploited this rise in smartphone industry to further their ill-considered propaganda campaigns against the state.

There were a steady string of episodes where smartphones were used to discredit the state. The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) which posed as a civil rights movement has fully abandoned its initial objectives and has been hijacked by anti-state forces. Vicious elements within the organization have used digital media to spread propaganda through coordinated social media campaigns that seek to malign the security forces. Fake and doctored smartphone footage of individuals being harassed by law enforcement officials at security checkpoints have surfaced constantly. These elements under the support and tutelage of hostile foreign forces have a well laid strategy that relies on the easy availability of smartphones. Similarly, these fringe elements have tried to sow discontent in Balochistan by capitalizing on the surge of smartphone and easy internet connectivity. Miscreants have found a true ally in social media through their exploitative techniques and spread viral videos for the consumption of susceptible minds.

This is really a cause for alarm given that in 2017 a survey conducted by Dawn, showed that 57.5 percent of 1,705 respondents felt fake news was a major problem in Pakistan. Whereas, 44.8pc said they had been tricked into believing a fake news story was true, while a further 34.3pc said they believed they may have been tricked. It puts the onus on dominant media houses to employ better means in order to outsmart modern media vigilantes.

It is not hard to trace the rationale for the skewed conflict reporting. In this day and age journalists have to deal with stiff competitions through the mushrooming news outlets thanks to the ease and accessibility of modern smartphones, they are subjected to added pressures and often succumb to dubious news sources just for the sake of sensational news content and to outpace other competitors in this cutthroat industry.

Journalists have to meander through reliable news in the face of massive propaganda on social media. They have to cover vast geographical locations to keep their devoted readers base as the latter have a substantial number of other sources of information via their handheld smartphone devices. It has become a global phenomenon. According to Christian Spahr, Head of the KAS Media Program South East Europe, the fast paced increase in speed through the internet, demands that articles and multimedia reports are made available more quickly and therefore are under greater pressure to expedite news than other competing media outlets. The budget constraints often limit the choices available to editors and they are forced to rely on freelancers for news content and analysis which invariably gets problematic. The independent freelancers feeds their own individual biases in the stories and become an easy target for vitriolic propaganda campaigns.

There is not all doom and gloom though. On the plus side, the internet age has changed how reporting takes place at the time of conflicts. Huge data transfers, fact-checking and real time access to previously obscure areas is mostly a few clicks away thanks the onslaught of smartphones. The growing social media platforms has enabled journalists to reach global audience and live stream from to the world from every nook and cranny. Video sharing platforms i.e. YouTube, Vimeo and Dailymotion are replete with daily uploads from all corners of the world. In addition to the above, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp do no lag far behind in transforming the means of news delivery. They have made possible for the journalists to avoid areas of conflict and rely on these popular resources. They do, however, pose a number of challenges.

The news market has been comprised by a steady stream of non-professionals and conflict reporters finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the professional and ethical standards of journalism. Getting to the heart of problems and finding the truth has turned into the search for the veritable holy grail. Journalists can be easily manipulated by the different sides in a conflict and fall a prey for planted stories against different sides. The use of propaganda and information manipulation are inherent in wars and conflicts and sticking to the highest standards journalism in conflict reporting has become an uphill task. Rampant misinformation and widespread fake news make objective reporting ever more difficult.

Now the question arises how to navigate through the labyrinth of this flawed state modern news media and conflict reporting engendered by the boom in the smartphone industry and easy access to objectionable content. While there is no panacea for all that ails conflict journalism today, there are, however, certain approaches and aspects that help journalist and the general public in turn to ensure the sanctity of disinterested exchange and transfer of information.

Conducting thorough research on the region of conflict has to be a priority with reporters. Journalists with firsthand experience of troubled areas can furnish vital information. Stories by other journalists who have returned from the war zone are an important source of information for informed analysis of issues. They need to build a close liaison with community members to learn true accounts of evens instead of relying on hearsay. Modern smartphone era warrants that reporters do not compromise security and duly ensure that that communication devices are protected is a precondition for personal safety and security. Journalist also can coordinate with other interest groups and form a teamwork that guarantees access to the genuine issues and effectively evades propagandists and apologists for the miscreants.

Instead of delivery of barebone stories, conflict reporters must always provide a solid background and a fitting context to the conflicts that they report on, instead of channeling a particular version of the story. They will have to make allowance for different points of view and as many perspectives as possible by looking for different voices in any situation, and finally, what counts the most is the personal integrity and a high level of commitment on the part of conflict reporters and mainstream journalists to counter the growing menace of social media industry fueled by ubiquitous smartphones.

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Leena Shah Mir is a freelance analyst from Gwadar, Balochistan.

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