The state no longer enjoys monopoly over information, he said. There are multiple and numerous actors in the information space where even very young TikTok creators are playing role of powerful information actors, sometimes more powerful than the journalists.
He went on to say that influence operations are normally carried out against the state by foreign actors. This is done by a combination of information manipulation and information distortion. All states big or small, weak or powerful are vulnerable.
"Disinformation is not a new phenomenon, it has existed in the past," pointed out the BIPSS president, adding, "What has significantly changed is the nature, scope and the speed of disinformation. Modern technology, social media, the use of AI and algorithms have completely changed the way disinformation can be created and disseminated. Disinformation and influence operations today are data based and data driven. These can create targeted operations or curated information for a particular group. The example of Cambridge Analytica shows that how a national election can be influenced and swung."
Since the behaviour and policies of states are increasingly information-based, they have also become information vulnerable. National security of the state is today linked to the information.
Ayesha Kabir, head of Prothom Alo's English web, defined influence operations as organised attempts to achieve specific effects among a target audience. Multiple actors can conduct influence operations. It can be politicians attempting to win votes, can be government's attempt to win support or can be activists advocating change. But outside powers are involved in the manipulation of information to serve their interests and this can pose as a national security threat.
State actors, radical militants, subversive groups and others use disinformation as a key tool in influence operations, she said, giving the Russia-Ukraine conflict as an example. She warned since Bangladesh was now in a sensitive geostrategic position, regionally and globally, it was a ripe arena for influence operations, particularly with the national elections looming large.
She felt the media has a vital role in countering such operations, not as activists, but as truth tellers. Freedom of expression is important at these times because suppressed truth is simply replaced by unchallenged untruth.
Shafqat Munir head of BCTR and senior research fellow at BIPSS, said that in this information and data driven society, disinformation is emerging as a critical challenge, stressing that it is important to understand the distinction between disinformation, misinformation and malinformation.
The proliferation of social media apps further add to the challenge, he pointed out. Information cannot be suppressed neither can an information vacuum be created.
"One of the biggest tools of fighting disinformation is to build awareness across society," he said.
Rounding up the discussions, Maj Gen Muniruzzaman (retd) said Bangladesh needs to assess the information space and its vulnerability objectively and comprehensively. "We need to craft a new national strategy to meet the challenges of disinformation and influence operations. It has to be a dynamic process and constantly updated."
The discussion ended with a lively interactive question and answer session. The event was attended by foreign diplomats, retired civil and military bureaucrats, academics, journalists and others.