As a fifty-one-year-old female Pakistani-origin journalist residing in the U.K., I have seen the impact of authoritarian rule firsthand in my childhood. Growing up under Zia’s martial law regime, I witnessed human rights abuses and the suppression of dissenting voices in my early teens. This experience shaped my understanding of the dangers of nation-based religious populist ideologies and fake news propaganda, which has become the most challenging issue in contemporary politics. Although my early memories of Pakistan were of a moderate society, I have also witnessed the populist instrumentalization of Islam and its disastrous consequences in the coming decades. As a journalist, I have been the victim of cyberbullying and threats while exposing populist manipulations. It is a reality that populist leaders worldwide, such as Indian Prime Minister Modi, Donald Trump, and notably Imran Khan – the most popular populist leader of my native country, Pakistan – employ these tactics to promote their narratives and manipulate the masses.
Populism is an ideology that has gained prominence in contemporary political discourse, where it segregates society into two clashing groups: “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite.”
Therefore, should the rise of populist leaders and their tactics cause concern for every concerned Democrat? As we have seen, they use nationalist and religious sentiments to sway public opinion, often relying on fake news and propaganda. The consequences of this can be devastating, as seen in the rise of hate crimes, human rights violations, and the erosion of democratic values. So, what is the remedy?
We know that Populism is an ideology that has gained prominence in contemporary political discourse, where it segregates society into two clashing groups: “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite” (Mudde, 2004). Populist leaders like Modi, Trump, and Imran Khan often employ fake news and propaganda to advance their agenda to any extent. Propaganda, especially online propaganda and fake news are designed to manipulate people’s thoughts and beliefs and persuade them to act in a certain way. While propaganda is the deliberate dissemination of information, ideas, or opinions, often intending to manipulate public opinion or behavior (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2014). Propaganda can take many forms, including mass media, advertising, political campaigns, and education, and is used by individuals, organizations, and governments to achieve a desired outcome (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2014).
Populist politicians in post-colonial countries have long understood the power of propaganda and used it effectively by easily manipulating people’s emotions on nationalism and instrumentalizing the religion. As a result, we have witnessed nation-based politics in India and Pakistan
According to Chomsky and Herman (1988), propaganda is often used as a means of manufacturing consent, where the ruling elite seeks to manipulate public opinion to support their interests. That can be seen in how political leaders use media to shape public opinion on issues such as war, immigration, and economic policy. Propaganda can also marginalize and demonize certain groups, as seen in Nazi Germany’s propaganda targeting Jews and other minority groups (Welch, 2011). In modern times, social media platforms have been used to spread propaganda and misinformation, leading to concerns about the impact on democratic processes and the spread of hate speech (Kalsnes, Larsson, & Enli, 2018). Since the rise of social media, propaganda has been adopted as a powerful tool that can be used for both positive and negative purposes. Therefore, it is essential to remain vigilant against its use and promote critical thinking and media literacy to ensure that the public can make informed decisions based on accurate information. Populist politicians in post-colonial countries have long understood the power of propaganda and used it effectively by easily manipulating people’s emotions on nationalism and instrumentalising the religion. As a result, we have witnessed nation-based politics in India and Pakistan, where the fundamental issues of poverty, education, and human rights, especially women’s rights, have always been ignored. However, it is not India or Pakistan; nation-based politics also harmed counties like the U.K. in the Brexit elections and America in Trump’s saga.
Trump and Khan are prime examples of politicians who have used propaganda to promote their populist agendas in their respective countries. They have also employed fake news, which is deliberately misleading or false, to influence the population’s perception of events.
Trump and Khan are prime examples of politicians who have used propaganda to promote their populist agendas in their respective countries. Both politicians have relied heavily on social media to spread their message, using Twitter and Facebook to communicate directly with their followers. However, they have also employed fake news, which is deliberately misleading or false, to influence the population’s perception of events. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is another prominent example of a populist leader who has utilised fake news and propaganda to advance his political agenda. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have relied on social media platforms to spread their messages and sway public opinion. They have been accused of spreading false and misleading information, particularly during the 2019 Indian general election. Modi’s campaign was heavily based on nationalistic and Hindu supremacist rhetoric, targeting religious minorities and other marginalized groups. His use of fake news and propaganda has led to the demonization of specific communities and the promotion of a divisive and polarising political atmosphere in India, demonstrating the harmful effects of populist politics and the need to counter fake news propaganda in the political sphere.
In Pakistan, Khan and his supporters have been spreading fake news about their political opponents with such intensity and organised propaganda that it often appears true. For instance, after Khan was democratically ousted in a no-confidence motion in April 2022, he incredulously used the “Amreeki Saazish” (American conspiracy) phenomenon to accuse the opposition of being an imported government. Through the tremendous propaganda of declaring the government as imported from America, Khan has recently convinced members of the U.S. Congress through his lobbying firms to issue condemnation statements against the same government on human rights violations. He also accused his opponents of corruption and other wrongdoing without evidence supporting their claims. His propaganda and the deep state elements have even influenced the courts to change the discourse of a fair trial phenomenon to their political opponents like Nawaz Sharif to be disqualified on a bizarre Aqama logic. Khan also used slogans like “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan), “Riyasat-e-Medina”, and “Tabdeeli” (Change) to appeal to the masses and undoubtedly succeeded as his opponents have to-date failed to apprehend his lies or infamous U-Turn statements.
Similarly, Trump and his supporters spread fake news in the United States, such as the “birther” conspiracy theory, which claimed President Obama was not born in the United States. Their style of politics takes us back to history when Hitler used the same strategies to intimidate his opponents. Can there be any comparison?
Comparing these tactics to those used by Hitler is not a new idea. Instead, Hitler’s Populism can be argued as an inspiration to the present-time populist leaders adopting his propaganda tactics. Hitler wrote extensively about the power of propaganda and how it could be used to manipulate the masses in his book “Mein Kampf.” Likewise, totalitarian regimes widely studied and imitated his propaganda techniques throughout the 20th century. A totalitarian regime is a government characterized by a single ruling party or individual’s absolute control of its citizens and institutions. In’ The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, a prominent political theorist, argues that such regimes are characterized by their ‘mobilization of the masses’ and establishing a ‘totalitarian society’ typically sealed off from the outside world.” The totalitarian state uses various methods to control its population, including propaganda, censorship, and surveillance, and seeks to eliminate any potential sources of opposition or dissent. This extreme form of authoritarianism has been seen in various historical contexts, including Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler and Stalinist Russia under Joseph Stalin. However, Hitler’s approach to propaganda was scientifically designed to manipulate the German population into accepting his fascist ideology and aggressive foreign policy like Modi, Trump, and Khan.
Hitler’s approach to propaganda was scientifically designed to manipulate the German population into accepting his fascist ideology and aggressive foreign policy like Modi, Trump, and Khan.
Hitler used techniques like mass rallies and public speeches to appeal to his audience’s emotions rather than their reason, and his use of simple, catchy slogans, such as “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer,” was designed to create a sense of unity and to make his message more memorable. However, he also used propaganda to demonize his opponents and create a sense of threat and danger, leading to a monopoly on information and silencing dissenting voices. The rise of populist leaders like Modi, Trump, and Khan, who employ similar tactics, poses a significant threat to democracy. As responsible journalists, we must be vigilant and recognize the dangers of propaganda and fake news. It is crucial to question the messages we receive from politicians and the media and to seek out diverse perspectives to gain a more comprehensive understanding of events. We must develop critical thinking skills and be media literate to combat the dangers of propaganda and fake news. We must question the sources of information and be willing to fact-check the news we consume, which is not impossible, yet very difficult to work. Being journalists and social media celebrities, we must also hold ourselves, politicians, and the media accountable for their statements and demand government transparency and accountability.
We must develop critical thinking skills and be media literate to combat the dangers of propaganda and fake news. We must question the sources of information and be willing to fact-check the news we consume.
In conclusion, the dangers of fake news, Populism, and propaganda politics cannot be overstated, as they can have far-reaching consequences on societies and democracies. The example of Hitler’s Nazi regime shows how propaganda can manipulate the masses and lead to totalitarianism. Today, populist leaders like Trump, Modi, and Imran Khan continue to employ similar tactics to promote their agendas, leading to the erosion of trust in democratic institutions and the polarisation of societies. In today’s world, where information is at our fingertips, we must be vigilant about the news and information we consume. Unfortunately, fake news and propaganda have become pervasive, leading to the spread of misinformation and the manipulation of public opinion. As a Pakistani journalist in the U.K., who has seen the dangers of propaganda and Populism firsthand, I believe that media literacy and critical thinking skills are essential to combat these challenges. As citizens, we are all responsible for spreading awareness and not getting trapped in the web of fake news propaganda. Therefore, we need to cross-check the content we consume and develop a discerning eye for what is true and what is not. That can be achieved through investing in media education and creating awareness programs that teach people how to identify fake news and propaganda.
Today, populist leaders like Trump, Modi, and Imran Khan continue to employ similar tactics to promote their agendas, leading to the erosion of trust in democratic institutions and the polarisation of societies.
In addition, governments must ensure that the media operates freely and independently, with transparent regulations that protect the public interest. That will ensure that everyone can access global news and information without being manipulated by the bombardment of fake news algorithms. By empowering citizens, especially women, with knowledge and information, we can build a more resilient and informed society better equipped to resist the dangers of fake news, Populism, and propaganda politics. The rise of populist leaders and fake news propaganda threatens democracy, leading to a monopoly on information and silencing dissenting voices. By developing critical thinking skills and becoming media literate, we can combat the dangers of propaganda and fake news and work towards a more transparent and accountable society. Let us learn from history and reject the divisive tactics of populist leaders who seek to manipulate and control the masses.
Pakistan Zindabad! Together, let us stand against the dangers of fake news and propaganda and work towards a brighter future for our nation.