With over half of the world’s population now using internet and with Dhaka ranked second among the top cities of the world in using Facebook, the social media has emerged to be an extremely effective tool for political debate and criticism in the country.
In recent times, intense social media activism, primarily on Facebook and Twitter -- ranging from academic debates to campaign for justice to satirical troll -- has forced the authorities concerned to give in on a number of occasions, signalling that the platform is going to be very crucial in the run up to the next general elections.
Apparently disturbed with various anti-government campaigns, the authorities had imposed a ban on the social networking site Facebook, citing security reasons; in 2015 although it lifted the ban 22 days into it following a huge outcry against the government move.
By this time, a good number of people were sued and arrested for, what the authorities said, defaming people in the authorities or hurting religious sentiment.
In the wake of growing use of the social media as well as internet in both personal and public life, the government has undertaken an initiative to amend the ICT Act ostensibly to make harsher provisions for “online crimes”.
A massive Facebook campaign seeking justice for the killing of Sylhet child Rajan, Khulna child Rakib and Cumilla girl Sohagi Jahan Tanu forced the authorities to expedite the process of bringing the culprits to book.
Another wave of Facebook campaign condemning the attack on Sylhet girl Khadija Akhter Nargis brought the attacker - the ruling party’s student wing Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) leader Badrul Alam - to book too.
While intense social media campaign brought apparently successful culmination in ‘no VAT on education’ movement and quota-reform movement, the social media also played a key role in busting up the fake news or fake claims by the people in the top authorities.
Of late, the state minister for foreign affairs, Mohammed Shahriar Alam, came under huge criticism by Facebook users over the issue of passport of Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) exiled acting chairman Tarique Rahman.
On a Facebook post of the minister which got about 5,000 emoticon reactions and over 500 shares in just 24 hours, about 1,900 people either criticised him or raised questions on his claim, with a very few hailing him.
According to a global report titled “Digital in 2017 Global Overview”, the number of social media users rose by 11 million in Bangladesh in one year from 2016 to 2017, which is the eighth fastest in terms of growth.
Dhaka was ranked second among the top cities of the world with 22 million active Facebook users in 2017 which covered 1.1 per cent of total users and remained second even in the Global Overview 2018.
The number of users, however, might not be a real one because one individual can open and use more than one Facebook accounts with different user IDs.
According to the Global Overview 2018, Bangladesh has a total of 30 million active social media users with a penetration rate of 18 per cent and as much as 28 million of them remain active using mobile phones.
“Expressing political opinion is always difficult in a country of limited political and media freedom. The governments always try to suppress political expression but many, in defiance, resort to using social media to speak up. And this is exactly what is happening in Bangladesh like the most censored countries such as Egypt, Iran, and Turkey,” social media researcher Daud Isa, also a PhD student of Mass Communication, at University of Georgia, USA, told Prothom Alo, when contacted over mail.
Also a formerly Bangladeshi journalist, Isa said, “The social media has nowadays become an effective platform for political expression in Bangladesh in the wake of limited political freedom there. What people used to discuss in the tea stalls or write on the wall earlier in the past is being discussed now on the social media, primarily on Facebook wall.
“Even those who wouldn’t take to the streets to register his/her protests against any decision to avoid any hassle now give posts on Facebook or Twitter criticising the decision. The social media has made the process of registering protests easy albeit it entails risks of being caught by the authorities like in the case of physical protests,” he added.
He said the social media has been instrumental in exchanging information and mass communications although there is a risk of misinformation, thanks to no filtering system.
When contacted, Dhaka University’s law professor and political commentator Asif Nazrul said the people never got such easy means to express their voices or to register their protests the way they are now being able to do through the social media.
“It’s much easier than graffiti. Against this backdrop, the social media has become a powerful means of generating public opinion. It played a pivotal role in various movements like the quota movement, the no-VAT movement and Tanu killing protests.”
He, however, feared that the platform might be used unilaterally by the ruling quarter in the days to come ahead of crucial general elections, given the way the government is enacting stricter legislation.
Another political commentator Zafrullah Chowdhury, the founder of Gonoshasthaya Kendra, said the importance of social media has “increased in the time of autocracy” in the country.
“The people’s involvement in the social media activism has increased significantly. The main reason behind it is absence of democracy when people are not allowed to hold rallies or processions, to express their opinions and when dissenting voices are not allowed to be expressed. Recent quota movement has proven how effective the social media is,” he added.
Talking to Prothom Alo, ruling Bangladesh Awami League’s (AL) joint general secretary Mahbubul Alam Hanif said the social media has emerged to be an important tool for ‘exchange of information’, education, political debates and sharing social experiences.
As for the possible role of the social media in the upcoming general elections, Hanif said it would play a crucial role in the run up to the polls as Facebook and other social media often provide “heated debate and discussions” on various social and political issues.
“The social media has been the alternative platform to speak out in the era when there is no democracy although the government is trying hard to keep its control over it,” noted opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) senior joint secretary general Ruhul Kabir Rizvi.
Saying that neither the mainstream media nor the social media can play a vibrant role during the reign of an “anti-people government”, Rizvi feared that a certain coterie may use the platform to spread fake news in the run up to the next general elections to be held in eight months’ time.