It has been a little more than two weeks since the Bangladesh government enforced a ban on Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber for security reasons in order to "save lives". At first, there was a sense of ambivalence towards the ban but with time many have started questioning its effectiveness.
While there's no doubt that social media is abused by many in this country (even cricketer Nasir Hossain wasn't spared), does it justify a nationwide ban? In a digitalised era where social media has infiltrated the very psyche of netizens, particularly that of young people, a ban on social media is bound to raise questions, and people expect justifications for the ban to be compelling.
The ban can easily be justified by magnifying the 'cons' of social media, which seems to be the case here. But by the same logic, one could protest the ban by highlighting the virtues that social media brings. Had it not been for Facebook, where the video of Rajon being tortured at the hands of grown adults was released, the teenager's brutal murder would have never gained countrywide attention. The power of social media at that moment lay in the national outcry following Rajon's killing and in the rare moment of unity as the people of the country demanded justice… Rajon's murderers now await their execution.
Take the popular page on Facebook, Moja Losss?, for example. It played somewhat of a role of a vigilante when the Pahela Boishakh sexual assault happened earlier this year. Moja Losss?, with the help of social media users, tried tirelessly to identify the molesters in photos and was even successful to an extent. Screen grabs of distasteful, misogynistic comments made on Facebook in the aftermath of the incident were captured and shared widely; some of the users (all of whom were men) who wrote those comments disabled their Facebook accounts due to guilt and shame.
The undeniable power of social media lies in its unparalleled ability to spread a message, whether good or bad, to the multitudes.
Part of the reasoning behind the ban is to protect girls and women from cyber sexual harassment, and without a doubt, this is a widespread crime that many fail to even acknowledge. But it is also through the cyber space that an increasing number of Bangladeshi girls and women are bringing to the fore their personal experiences of sexual harassment, online or otherwise, inspiring others to be vocal about this issue.
The day-to-day role that social media plays in our lives is larger than we may realise. Blood donations are solicited on Facebook; fake products and fraudulent companies are exposed on Facebook groups like Desperately Seeking Dhaka; and crowdfunding by charity organisations and volunteers assist the underprivileged. The list goes on.
Granted, social media can be a dangerous place; but it also provides a safe haven for ordinary people who, lacking trust in law enforcing agencies and/or the judicial system, use the digital space to air their grievances and protests in order to seek solidarity and some sort of justice.
So let's be careful not to discredit the positives of social media.
One of the pro-ban arguments is that lives could have been saved in the recent Paris attacks had social networking sites been temporarily shut down. Now, one may ask, can we really compare France, a developed country in the West, to Bangladesh, a developing country? Context matters. The temporary social media ban in Bangladesh is completely understandable given our limited capabilities, resources and infrastructure to deal with the threat of militancy, or what have you, head on. But it is highly doubtful that a temporary ban on social media sites in France would have prevented the large-scale, orchestrated attacks said to be the deadliest that France has seen since WWII. It is absurd to think that the sophisticated French counter-terrorism intelligence, despite all its surveillance measures and collaboration with foreign intelligence, could have foiled the attacks simply with a social media ban at home.
The assertion that the ban on social media prevented subversive activities this time around is debatable. The major reason behind this most likely lies in the beefing up of security nationwide, and it could very well be that criminal gangs are laying low only for the time being.
Social media is simply a means to an end and bans aren't an antidote to the country's woes (e.g. rising extremism). Social media does not "provoke" a man to harass a woman; a sexist mentality is to blame. Social media does not "cause" militant activities; a flawed ideology is to blame.
Social networking sites are no longer just a medium of entertainment and leisure; they are a source of livelihood for many. Social media bans hurt businesses that rely on F-commerce (or Facebook commerce) and such businesses are now thriving across Bangladesh.
The root causes of whatever it is that threatens the state's security are complex and lie outside the realm of social media. Without efficient law enforcement agencies and intelligence community armed with the resources and infrastructure to deal with security threats, we will achieve little with bans on social media in a Digital Bangladesh.
The writer is a member of the Editorial Team at The Daily Star.