Social media can be a bane or boon to democracy

Speakers at a policy circle on Tuesday on “Social Media’s Influence on Democracy” at The Westin, Dhaka.

Social media has an impact on democracy and can be used both to promote the freedoms and rights upheld by democracy, and also demean these values. It can be used or misused in this regard and so awareness is required to prevent the abuse of this media so that it cannot impede democracy. Social media can be a bane or boon to democracy.

These observations were made at a discussion on “Social Media’s Influence on Democracy”. This was part of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS)'s regular a policy circle event. Held on Tuesday at The Westin, Dhaka, the meeting was attending by a cross section of diplomats, academics, media persons, bureaucrats and more.

Shafqat Munir, Senior Research Fellow, BIPSS, while delivering his opening remarks, stated that social media has some positive aspects such as it can give people a voice, provide people access to information and can empower people so that they can become better democratic citizens.

He added that on the other hand social media can spread disinformation. It can create bias and divide the society. Shafqat Munir also called attention to the vulnerability of the people of Bangladesh in the realm of social media, pointing out that Bangladesh has a massive internet user population, even higher than the population of many large countries.

Moderator of the event, Major General ANM Muniruzzaman, ndc, psc, (Retd), president, BIPSS, set the stage by highlighting the growing significance of social media's impact on democracy, especially amid multiple upcoming elections worldwide.

He underscored the challenges posed by the seamless transition from physical to virtual existence of people that can complicate democratic practices. He also highlighted the necessity of safeguarding our personal information as social media is being used for microtargeting and creating micro-profiles as well.

Additionally, he depicted the creation of a generational gap by social media, noting the distinction between the analogue era and the digital era. He also voiced concerns about the surveillance over individuals' personal data, emphasising the need for attention to this issue.

Journalist Ayesha Kabir of Prothom Alo said that social media was a game changer but at the end of the day it is all about how we use or misuse these platforms. She said the 'Arab Spring' was an example of a social media-driven movement.

She said in the use of social media for the promotion of democracy, we have to be proactive rather than reactive. “What we lack in our country is a strong fact-checking network,” she said, in reference to the proliferation of misinformation on social media.

Research analyst Faisal Bin Majid of UNDP stressed on how politicians are relying on social media to have the attention of the target audience. He noted the historical influence of newspapers in past elections of Bangladesh, specifically in 1996 and 2001, and the current spread of disinformation via WhatsApp groups in India.

Faisal illustrated how people of different community in India are being felt threatened and provoked against other groups through social media.  He emphasised on enhancing social media's integrity and transparency moving forward.

According to Rezwan Islam, Communications and Outreach Coordinator, Engage Media, the roles of individual users, fact-checkers, journalists and others will be pivotal for safeguarding democracy. He also pointed out the role of social media influencers in making things viral that can be both positive and negative. In his opinion, the quality of journalism has degraded and people are also not aware enough regarding identifying disinformation.

During the interactive session, issues like having control over expression of opinions via social media, data localisation, trolling through social media, information being released on dark web, filtering eastern and western propaganda etc. were discussed. Journalists, diplomats, academicians, students and others joined the event.