Under the garb of countering "fake news" on social media, critics say the ruling Awami League seeks to stifle and criminalise voices critical of the government.
In mid-August, Abdullah Baki, a grass-root level activist of Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League (AL) attended a workshop as part of his orientation program with the party. In that session, he received a few lessons which can be boiled down to one phrase: 'fighting rumour'.
The workshop conducted by AL’s Science and Technology affairs sub-committee was in fact a part of its wider program, taken to confront what they term as “propagandas” and “mistruths” peddled by the party’s political oppositions on the social media.
Baki was basically taught a three-step process which includes spotting a “rumour” and writing posts countering that alleged rumour, reporting the specific social media account or page to the social media company via dozens of different accounts and sending the profile information to the law enforcement agencies.
“It's voluntary work. Many people are trying to belittle the great achievements of our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. They are spreading various rumours on Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Our task is to counter those,”Baki told TRT World.
Describing Bangladesh’s social media space as a “playground for opposition’s rumour and fake news”, the ruling AL, which is now in power for three consecutive terms, has started training tens of thousands of activists like Baki to wage what they term as “war against fake news.”
“We are taking this program to create 100,000 dedicated online activists who will work as our army in the social media to counter opposition’s rumours,” Md Abdus Sabur, secretary of AL’s Science and Technology affairs sub-committee told TRT World.
With the next national election slated for the end of 2023, AL will unleash its trained social media army to flood Bangladesh’s Internet with news on the party's "good deeds", he added.
Sabur, who is heading this program, said they have already trained about 30,000 activists from January this year.
“We will need one more year to complete the program. Our party chief Sheikh Hasina and her only son Sajeeb Wazed instructed us to run this,” he said.
Wazed also acts as Hasina’s information and technology advisor. A resident of the United States, Wazed is known for calling the shots in the party, especially when it comes to making decisions about technology and media.
An “authoritarian” move to control the narrative
Independent analysts and opposition activists however are criticizing this latest attempt, saying this would further shrink the space for freedom of expression in Bangladesh.
Dr Mubashar Hasan, a Bangladeshi researcher who is now working in the University of Western Sydney in Australia, told TRT World the AL's move of training these so-called "fake news" slayers is a manifestation of its ongoing ambition to assert full control and authority over the political and social narrative of Bangladesh.
“This is a textbook method of authoritarian states and AL is following it,” Hasan said, adding that it looks like the AL is following India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's model of using a "troll army" to harass, silence and stifle opposition views.
He said like any other authoritarian state, the AL wants to promote the narrative of economic growth and development while at the same time wants to suppress the narrative of grave human rights violations by its security forces, corruption and mass deprivation of civic rights.
“So, through this latest approach, they want to define what truth in Bangladesh is and what rumour is,” Dr Hasan said.
Syed Imran Saleh Prince, Organizing Secretary of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—AL’s arch-rival and the country’s main opposition party—told TRT World that AL has exerted full control over Bangladesh’s mainstream media space with draconian laws.
Prince added that the governing party now wants to control the social media space where people still express their opinion and talk about various policy missteps of the ruling party.
“AL passed ‘black law’ such as the Digital Security Act and used it to shut down the mouths of its critics. Because of such an act, no mainstream media houses are showing the courage to criticize the government now,” he said.
It is to be noted that the AL government in 2018 passed the Digital Security Act to “contain cybercrime," ignoring the misgivings of journalists, human rights advocates and other parties. The act allows law enforcement agencies to arrest people without a court warrant if a case of spreading "false" information is logged.
Since the law was passed, dozens of cases have been filed against journalists, and scores of arrests have been made. In addition, several hundred cases have been filed and arrests made for defamation or spreading "propaganda" against influential individuals and the government.
Researcher Hasan said that even though the AL uses the Digital Security act to suppress its critics on the ground, third parties like Facebook have banned “multiple AL associates in the past on the ground of spreading rumours.”
“So, in their playbook, AL driven rumour could be true where fact-driven truth demonstrating AL in the bad light could very well be a rumour,” Dr Hasan added.
Lack of digital literacy
Shariful Islam, science and technology secretary of Dhaka unit of AL and a master trainer of the program, however, begs to differ. According to Islam, Bangladesh’s social media is growing every year, so countering rumours in this space requires manpower and coordinated effort.
The South Asian nation saw 25 percent year-on-year growth in social media users, said a February report by Hootsuite, a social media platform. With more than 45 million social media users, 27 percent of Bangladesh’s total population is active online, said Hootsuite, and research agency We Are Social.
Islam said a large number of people in Bangladesh’s social media space has a problem in differentiating truth from rumour.
“I can give you hundreds of examples. Think about the rumour that was spread during the safe road movement of the country’s students in 2018. There was this rumour that AL activists raped two students in its office in Dhanmondi. The rumour went viral on social media and later was proven to be a false claim. But the damage was already done and it tainted the party’s image,” said Islam.
“We have been training our activists to counter such claims and let people know about the truths. We are not doing this to control the country’s social media space. We strongly believe in freedom of expression,” he added.
Speaking to TRT World, Qadaruddin Shishir, a fact-checker and editor at Agence France Presse (AFP), said deploying party activists to “fight against rumour” is not a good idea at all.”
“In fact, this will worsen the current misinformation situation in Bangladesh. From past instances, we know that when a political party here talks about ‘fighting rumours’, it actually means ‘launching counter propaganda’. So it will ultimately add to the misinformation and disinformation,” Shishir said.
He said debunking rumours or fake news “requires non-partisan and trusted people to intervene where party activists will fail.”
“As a fact-checker, I have been debunking for years fake news propagated by different political parties including the ruling AL,'' he said, adding that targeting dissenting people with coordinated disinformation campaigns led by the ruling party's online activists has now become a common practice in Bangladesh.