Manufacturing Dumbness

Originally published in the Daily Times on Monday June 27, 2011 as my weekly column BAAGHI

Breathing in 2011, one would not doubt Francis Bacon, a 17th century English philosopher, scientist, statesman and alleged Rosicrucian, when he said, “Lies are sufficient to breed opinion.” But when he said, “Opinion brings on substance,” one would think again. In an age of crafting and manipulation of public opinion, expecting substance would be as unintelligible as are Masonic puzzles a Rosicrucian would try to bring in.

The way 24/7 imagery imposed upon people, mostly urban, influences their thought process would have probably been unimaginable in the 17th century, although the power of propaganda had long been recognised by human consciousness. People in Pakistan have been a target of state propaganda since the birth of this country, and even before. The mythical theories created to divide the people along religious lines were later used to unite diverse communities along the same lines. All backfired and we experienced 1971. The divisiveness played on the people of united India finally hit ‘united’ Pakistan.

The establishment and the right-wing religious groups in Pakistan have never underestimated the power of misinformation (legitimised as ‘propaganda’ or ‘PsyOps’ for national interest). Rather, they have made most ‘proper’ use of it generously to their ultimate win, always. Creating confusion among the people and then building upon those confusions, they never stop selling doubts. Their acts of falsely creating, crafting and manipulating public opinion are hidden in plain sight — like Osama. Having seen our own army brutally killing our sons and raping our own daughters in East Pakistan and now in Balochistan, people are still made to believe that today’s soldier cannot kill a ‘Kalma-reciting’ Muslim brother in FATA just because the west thinks he is a terrorist.

Ironically, the potential victim of such propaganda remains the urban working class, which without the slightest doubt has been most exposed to terrorist threat since decades. This urban population has never witnessed drone strikes, but the violence committed by the terrorists. Yet, this is the huge chunk of the Pakistani population that has been fed on doubts about not only who is a terrorist but also about who is being killed by drones. Despite a clear statement by General Officer Commanding 7-Division Major General Ghayur Mehmood that the overwhelming majority of those killed in drone strikes are local and foreign terrorists, the media-generated propaganda continues to confuse people. In this entire hullabaloo, what we tend to forget is a key question: why were drone strikes started? And how are drones violating our sovereignty if they are flying from our own bases provided to the US forces by our own army?

If we had provided a base to US forces in 2004, the most important question that our self-righteous analysts sitting on TV pulpits 24/7 need to ask is, where are the details of the agreement that allowed these strikes? Not only that the Pakistan Army has to learn to answer key questions while crafting a propaganda campaign, but the analysts, TV anchors and columnists too need to get courage and basic intelligence to ask the right questions. Leave the drones issue aside as it opens up many questions of legality, human rights, counter-terrorism strategies and arrangements on the ground, the answer to which may be quite uncomfortable for those who like to kill everyone who asks questions instead of reflecting upon their own failures. There are many instances of faking public opinion on issues least relevant to people’s lives in reality.

The opinion polls done in “disproportionately urban” areas to determine the national popularity of some politicians, especially those who cannot even win a Union Council election in a rural constituency, turn out to be not only misleading but potentially corruptible too. A recent opinion poll conducted by PEW Global Attitudes Project that declares Imran Khan being supported by 68 percent people (surveyed), also declares Nawaz Sharif being supported by 65 percent, which makes at least 65 percent people highly confused between Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan. The methodology of the survey does not clearly say who administered the questionnaire, as it is one of the most important aspects of the authenticity of a survey that those administering the interviews must know the nuances and collective attitudes of that population. If this is not so, positivism (the scientific method) is compromised by a huge margin of error generated due to the wrong formulation of questions and resultantly wrong interpretations and responses.

For example, if you ask a person in Lahore: “Do you think higher education should be provided by the provinces rather than the federal government?” and then rephrase the same question as: “Do you agree with the recent decision of the federal government to devolve higher education to the provinces?”, the response would be overwhelmingly negative in the latter case owing to the negative framing of everything that the federal government does. It might just be bad social science on the part of PEW that affected its survey’s methodology; its usage by PsyOps managers sitting in Islamabad would be unscrupulous in manipulating the findings as majority opinion, which it is not. Just to remind of a small event in not-so-far-off history, similar polls in the US had predicted the victory of Thomas Dewey in the presidential elections of 1948. Basing on the findings of these polls, the newspapers the next morning proclaimed Dewey’s victory in their headlines without waiting for the results. In all probability, the polls were not representative of the general public opinion, as Harry Truman was elected the 31st president of the Unites States.

Manipulation of opinion by misinformation has so negatively affected the people’s general ability to critically think and deduce that out of our sheer loyalty to outright lies we are wary of questioning the rhetoric. Building up rhetoric is no more an art in Pakistan; it is rather an everyday job of the media that thrives on the business of uncertainty. It is this environment of selling misinformation that makes virtues like freedom of expression a mere business tactic of the media industry. One would be greatly misled if one thinks that the raison d’être of the media is to convey information and ‘speak the truth’. All industries, including the media, are there to make money, like it or not.

In a society completely confused about ideology, yet obsessed with it and with religion, making money mingles massively with the manufacture of consent for a particular ideology. In our case, this particular ideology is political Islam that radicalises an uninformed audience unconsciously. Almost 80 percent of key media persons, columnists, opinion makers and politicians in Pakistan, as late Saleem Shahzad argues in his last book (Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11), have been a part of or linked to political Islamist organisations like Jamaat-e-Islami through their student wings. That makes a curious case for tracing the roots of faking pubic opinion that suits the followers of one particular viewpoint. It is not just the army as an institution that makes or breaks public images and manipulates public opinion.

There are many parallel forces at play, visible to the naked eye. One does not have to borrow a prop to see through them, it is a bit of critical thinking that exposes the lies spoken in the names of ‘honour’, ‘patriotism’, ‘ideology’, ‘religion’, ‘culture’ and even, dare I say, the Two-Nation Theory. Manipulating public opinion might seem an effective technique to realise some short-term benefits; however, it gives rise to incurable social and political pathologies we are facing now. But then, who cares? Those who have been doing it since the birth of Pakistan do not share any concern for the future of this country. For them faith comes first, the country can take care of itself. Should we stand up to take care of Pakistan then? If yes, diarrhoea of the mouth and constipation of thought is not going to help.