September 15, 2015. Hundreds and thousands of private university students took to the streets of the capital to press home their demand for a withdrawal of 7.5 Vat on their tuition fees. The two-day-long protest had witnessed a prime ministerial directive that cancelled the Value Added Tax. Save for the real protest that was made by blocking the busy thoroughfares of the capital, the movement was planned, organised and executed on Facebook. And like all such movements, it was powered by the middle class.
There are more instances like this where people power has flexed its muscle through the social media. Take the gruesome murder of Samiul Alam Rajon. The 13-year-old was chained and hit several times on his head, stomach and nails with a stick. His body bore 64 injury marks. The brutal act was videoed and uploaded on YouTube by his assailants. Little did his attacker know that Rajon has a famous predecessor - Derrion Albert, a Chicago teenager who was beaten to death in a similar fashion five years ago. The video of Albert's death, which was captured on someone's handphone, went viral on the net. The incident led to a violent maelstrom in the US; mainstream media soon took notice; President Barack Obama sent the US Attorney General and the Secretary of Education to discuss youth violence with the city mayor.
It did not take long for Rajon's video to go viral either. The 30-minute-long clip showed the boy begging for some mercy and a glass of water to the amused laughter of his attackers. The sight of Rajon, chained like slaves, crying for help was viewed with shock, and JusticeForRajon as a hashtag on Facebook and other social networking sites soon started to trend. The print and television media picked it up a day or two later. Rajon's killers, one of whom included a local ruling party highup, were eventually arrested and are now facing trial. Through his Facebook profile, it was found out that one of the alleged murderers had fled to Saudi Arabia, which led to his arrest and extradition.
A few days ago, Shohagi Jahan Tonu, a Comilla Victoria College student, was raped and killed. Her body was discovered in a field at the heart of Comilla Cantonment. The newspapers were able to cover the news long after it went viral, and more and more incidents of rape and murder started to flood our timeline. Indeed, the Tonu incident adds to a long list of failures of the print and electronic media in understanding the value of a certain news item.
To put it less harshly, it can be said without any reasonable doubt that slowly and surely two different types of source of news are emerging - one is slow to respond and is centred round old narratives. The other, made and powered by the middle class, is jazzy, judging and opinion-based. The latter, definitely, is the new sexy.
As demonstrated by the three major movements described, the social media, through different groups and pages, is letting its users know about certain events immediately after it happens, sometimes even in real time. A carefully thought-out opinion piece can be put as a Facebook status within minutes by the click of a mouse.
Instead of the barrel of a gun, power now grows out of the click of a mouse. This is especially so for many democracies which are showing signs of intolerance. For a strong regime in the 21st century, it is rather difficult to hold onto power through brute force alone. Rather, repression or use of power in Weberian terms, creates what Andres Olfosgård, Raj M Desai and Tarik Yousef in their book calls the 'dictator's dilemma'. In The Logic of Authoritarian Bargain, the trio say, "… (sometimes) citizens feign support for the ruler even as they collide to rebel, increasing the degree of insecurity. More likely, some form of redistribution to citizens is necessary to secure and maintain their loyalty… regimes are therefore said to rely on an 'authoritarian bargain,' or an implicit arrangement between ruling elites and citizens whereby citizens relinquish political influence in exchange for public spending."
It will be unduly harsh to call the present Bangladesh regime dictatorial or authoritarian even. But signs of increased public spending and a serious emphasis on economic growth are evident in the way the country is presently run. The focus has shifted from politics to economy, and its steady growth has welcomed many citizens to the fold of the middle class. All at the expense of politics, popularly perceived as the domain of the unprincipled, not an honest man's cup of tea.
The country does not have an effective opposition, neither in the street nor in the parliament. The free media at times shy away from bringing up seriously unpleasant issues. The only channel that the middle class, the children of the growth-driven political economy, has been left with to vent its anger is the social media. This is where Facebook comes into play, and this is why it might as well become the barometer by which we will have to measure discontent.
The writer is author, editor and journalist. He is Literary Editor of The Daily Star and Head of Daily Star Books.