Thousands of students took to Dhaka streets, pouring out their anger at the poor traffic safety following the killing of two students by a speed- ing bus in city in end- July this year. During the nine-day long protests, starting on 29 July, the social media was widely used for popular support. Social networking platforms, primarily Facebook, were used for planning meetings and encouraging people to participate in the demonstrations.

There were, however, reports about the use of this platform for the spread of rumours and misinformation, including fake news of student being killed and raped. The ruling Awami League alleged that the political opposition was
misusing the social media by spreading wrong information to ignite emotions and instigate people against the government. Around 100 persons were arrested by the law enforcement agencies for spreading a rumour.

Proven power
The use of social media to generate mass support for protests and demonstration is not new in Bangladesh. The power of social media to mobilise mass movements was realised first during the ‘Shahbagh movement’ in 2013. During Shahbagh movement, hundreds and thousands of people came out to the streets of Dhaka, demanding capital punishment for the Abdul Quader Mollah, a Jamaat-e-Islami leader, convicted of war crimes by the International War Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh. Initially, Mollah was sentenced to life imprisonment but later he was given a capital punishment, following the protests.

In Bangladesh, social media is regularly used to generate support for mass protests. Social media was widely used during the students’ agitation against the quota in April and May also.

One of the basic differences between the present wave of protests and the Shahbagh was the Shahbagh was not necessarily considered anti-government and in way complemented the ruling Awami League’s agenda of punishing the war criminals of 1971 liberation war.

Of late, the government has become concerned about the use of social media as such movements are often seen to bring in disruptions and suspected of opposition conspiring to take these popular issues to build up an anti-government agitation. Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina has expressed concern over the use of social media, especially the Facebook, for spreading misinformation for misleading the people. The PM’s comments highlight the impact of the social media on the student agitation on the road safety.

Attractive platform
According to Global Digital Report 2018, around 49 percent of Bangladesh’s population uses internet, which means the country has 81.66 million internet users of which 18 percent are active social media users, meaning around 30.5 million people are active social media users. According to the Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission, the country has 25-30 million Facebook users, of which 72 percent are male and rest 28 percent are female.

In Bangladesh, social media is regularly used to generate support for mass protests. Social media was widely used during the students’ agitation against the quota in April and May also.

A significant percentage of these users is between ages 18 and 24, who are mostly pursuing the undergraduate degree course, or are have blue collar jobs. Considering that a large part of the population is on the social media, predominantly Facebook, the medium provides an attractive platform to target to pursue propaganda.

Besides, studies have suggested social media is also very cost effective and faster mode to spread information and also propaganda.

Today, authorities while in one hand are tasked to maintain law and order in the real world, they on the other are adjudicated to tackle spread of fake news and rumours via social media in the virtual world as it often disturbs the peace. To address rising threats from the social media and fake news authorities are planning to monitor the social media and investing in upgrading infrastructure for stricter surveillance. Such measures are facing resistance because they often restrict freedom of speech and many of the rights-based groups are expressing reservations.

People use social media not only to vent out political views, which could in a way be seen as a kind of political expression. A large section on the social media uses the medium just for sharing personal emotions with friends. It will be worthy to watch how the government balances security with the personal liberty of the people.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. The article was originally published in South Asia Weekly Report

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