Fake story spurs Pakistani official to threaten Israel with nuclear response

A Pakistani official threatened a nuclear response against Israel after reading a fake news report, raising concerns about the power of false information. 

Anjum Naveed/AP/File
Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif speaks to journalists outside the Supreme Court, in Islamabad, Pakistan, in November.

A fake news story claiming Israel intended to use nuclear weapons in an attack against Pakistan prompted a threat from a top Pakistani official on Friday. 

The spread of fake news across social media platforms and various sites has generated concern in recent months, with Facebook unveiling new tools to flag questionable information and Germany proposing even stricter punishments to prosecute those who publish fake reports. For many observers, the abundance of fake news reports emerging during the presidential campaign has troubling implications for politics. Some also worry about the potential for physical violence based off of inaccurate reports, as in the case of a North Carolina man arrested after firing multiple shots in a Washington pizzeria, which he traveled to after reading a false conspiracy theory.

The Israel-Pakistan confrontation began last week, after AWD, which fact-checking groups have identified as a fake news site, published a false report with the headline; “Israeli Defense Minister: If Pakistan send ground troops to Syria on any pretext, we will destroy this country with a nuclear attack” [sic]. The site also featured a story that claimed Hillary Clinton was in the process of staging a military coup against President-elect Donald Trump.

Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Mohammad Asif, took action against the alleged remark, tweeting, “Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh.Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too AH” [sic] on Friday.  

Israel's Defense Ministry tweeted back Saturday, calling the report “entirely false.” Many have since taken to social media to mock or criticize Mr. Asif for issuing the serious response without vetting the report.

Asif isn’t the only high-ranking official to share false stories on social media. Mr. Trump, for example, has ensnared himself in multiple controversies for crafting tweets with information from unvetted sites; PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site, has graded 69 percent of the Trump statements they investigated as "Mostly False," "False," or "Pants on Fire." Earlier this month, The Washington Post launched a fact-checker that vets information on Trump’s tweets, a Google Chrome plugin "to help ensure that the public receives the most accurate possible information" and to "add more context or corrections to things that Trump tweets," as its creators wrote in the Chrome store product description.

But fact-checking alone often is not enough to diminish the appeal of fake news. Dismantling readers' trust and loyalty to such sites isn’t an easy task, as The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this month. Readers on all sides of polarizing debates find solace in reports that reaffirm their convictions, leading many to engage with media that fits in the bubble of their own perceptions and champion such sources as "alternatives" to mainstream media.

“This is exactly what psychology literature on the topic would say. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we expose ourselves to select information so we feel good about ourselves,” Clare Wadel, research director at First Draft, a nonprofit that advocates for truth in the digital sphere, told the Monitor. “When people on Facebook write ‘My sources say…’ it proves they are not looking for objective truth in the middle. Sources that are ‘mine’ will give me information to reaffirm what I already think.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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