Ever since it started existing, governments have had a love-hate relationship with social media. Predictably, the romance starts to sour when social media contains criticism of the government as it often does and the affair blooms when the opposite happens, in particular when sycophancy takes on gargantuan proportions. In our particular case, only days before the elections, we have a peculiar situation where social media is being manipulated with the seeming intention of bringing about a certain outcome in the polls.
It started with the news of the authorities shutting down certain sites of the BNP because they contained “distasteful content”—a vague term that could be applicable to just about anything. Of course keeping things vague is an age-old practice of state administrations to make sure certain agendas are pursued without technically breaking the law. Interestingly, only a few days later, another news report informed us that Facebook has decided to shut down a series of “fake news sites spreading false information in Bangladesh before national elections.” The sites—nine Facebook pages designed to imitate well-known news outlets that are popular such as BBC Bangla language service and bdnews24.com and six fake personal accounts—were geared towards spreading anti-opposition propaganda. According to an AP report, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, said that these sites were created by “Bangladeshis having ties with the government.” Twitter too made a similar allusion and said it had suspended 15 accounts in Bangladesh “for engaging in coordinated platform manipulation” though most of them had no more than 50 followers.
As social media users we all know that for the most part we spend very little time, if at all, on trying to assess whether the site of a well-known news outlet is authentic or not. Our over-reliance on anything we find online makes us vulnerable to such fraud and this ignorance presents the window of opportunity for governments to manipulate information to influence public perceptions. According to Facebook, the company disabled 754 million fake accounts globally in the third quarter of this year, up from 583 million in the first quarter in 2018. This is after the widespread criticism of Facebook's role in allowing false information to be spread through accounts during the US presidential elections as well as in 2018 in spreading racist propaganda in Myanmar. The result of such social media manipulation, according to political analysts, has had enormous impact such as affecting the result of the US elections or promoting ethnic cleansing that has left hundreds of Rohingyas dead and around a million taking refuge in Bangladesh.
Authorities become hypersensitive to social media during elections, hence the rather absurd steps taken to stop any kind of news that will go against the party in power. A news report in this paper on December 24 tells us that BTRC, the telecom regulatory body, has placed four options to the Election Commission for Election Day. Should they slow down the internet speed from 3G and 4G to 2G or should they partly or entirely block mobile internet services on that fateful day (December 30)? Apparently, it does not matter if local and international businesses come to a standstill, or if people cannot get cash from the ATMs (even if it's an emergency), or if e-commerce is stalled, not to mention the communications people conduct over WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat or Imo. This forced shutdown would apparently be “saving lives” (according to an official of BTRC) which of course precedes any other kind of priority.
For journalists and observers of the election, if sites like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are blocked, it will mean pictures or videos cannot be shared. This certainly raises questions regarding why the authorities do not want pictures or videos to be uploaded. As naïve as this question may seem, given the ground realities and the bitter lessons of the quota reform and road safety movements (during which the BTRC had slowed down internet speed as recommended by law enforcers), it must nevertheless be asked. As ordinary citizens who have the right to vote and protest if that right is hampered—by exposing anomalies on their own or through the media—such extreme measures to block certain information while feeding propaganda of a particular party rapidly erode confidence in a free and fair election. If “saving lives” was such a priority, perhaps the authorities should first stop the escalating violence on the real streets, often perpetrated by ruling party affiliates, before taking draconian measures in the virtual highway.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.