Political landscape: Indications behind the barrage of 'haha' reactions

Ha ha

Recently a news card captured my attention while I was casually scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed. Dated on 4 September, the card shared by the verified page of Somoy TV showed Dhaka University teachers forming a human chain in front of the Aparajeyo Bangla sculpture on the campus, demanding the revocation of Dr Muhammad Yunus' Nobel Peace Prize.

What struck me was the huge reaction it generated – around 4,600 comments and 28,000 reactions. But here is the twist - more than 24,000 of the reactions were in the form of 'haha' emojis, seemingly mocking the country’s most revered teachers. And the comments mostly ridiculed them, as well as other influential figures.

The ‘haha’ reaction was introduced in 2016 as a convenient way to express laughter and amusement on Facebook. But in most cases, it is playing a completely different role here – the simplest, and undoubtedly the safest tool of expressing ridicule, utter discontent, and grievance. 

Intrigued by the news card, I went to delve deeper and checked other news cards uploaded on the Facebook page. I found most of the highly engaging news cards flooded with 'haha' reactions and disturbing comments. 

For instance, a news card featured finance minister AHM Mustafa Kamal and quoted him as saying that the economy here is doing fine, despite the Russia-Ukraine war. It received 897 'haha' reactions out of the 1200 total reactions. Apart from the abuse in the comment box, the others sum up that the minister has no idea or care about the public sufferings. 

Another card displayed ICT state minister Zunaid Ahmed Palak’s statement that he uses a locally manufactured mobile phone. It saw 2.5k 'haha' out of 3,900 reactions. 

I also explored Facebook pages of different media outlets, including DBC News, Daily Kalbela, Samakal, and found a similar trend everywhere. Posts and news cards related to ministers and other influential individuals were swamped with 'haha' reactions, with overwhelming negative or ridiculing comments. Notably, statements by ministers regarding public suffering, such as commodity price hikes, triggered a barrage of 'haha' reactions.

But why do individuals opt to use the "haha" reaction? Such behaviour might be rationalised to some extent had the "haha" reaction been the most convenient or readily accessible one. But it does not seem so as one has to hover the reaction key for a while and choose a reaction consciously over some other options. 

The police reportedly arrested at least two for commenting 'Alhamdulillah' on Facebook regarding the policemen's death

Nowadays, another disturbing trend emerged on social media regarding the response to the news of deaths, particularly of individuals affiliated with the ruling party or state agencies. Instead of expressing shock or sorrow, a large number of netizens ridicule the deaths and express satisfaction. 

For instance, when seasoned ruling party lawmaker and valiant freedom fighter Abdul Quddus passed away, Daily Kalbela posted a news card on its Facebook handle on 30 August and it was flooded with 'Alhamdulillah' (a religious term to express satisfaction) comments.

The scenario is similar when deaths of ruling party men are reported from even remote villages. After a local Jubo League leader died in a clash in Jhenaidah, the DBC News ran a news card on his death, which received 17,000 'haha' among 28,000 total reactions and the comment section was filled with 'Alhamdulillah'.

In another recent case, three policemen died in a road accident in Chattogram. Daily Kalbela released a video report on the incident and it was overwhelmed by ‘haha’ reactions and 'Alhamdulillah' comments.

However, the issue didn't go unnoticed. The police reportedly arrested at least two for commenting 'Alhamdulillah' on Facebook regarding the policemen's death. 

The abnormal trend of ‘haha’ reaction raises an intriguing question – who are the users of Facebook? 

According to social media management and analytics platform NapoleonCat, Facebook was the most dominant social media platform in Bangladesh as of August 2023, boasting 63.65 million users, which represents a significant 36.2 percent of the country's total population. 

It also revealed that some 65.3 per cent of the users are men, while the largest group is aged between 18 and 24 (28.3 million). 

The reactions clearly emanated from a substantial portion of the population, making it tough to ignore them outright. The responses paint a grim picture of a deeply divided and exceedingly intolerant society.

Individuals aligned with the ruling party often see the ‘haha’ reactions as indicative of gross moral degradation, often ascribing it to their political adversaries, especially those affiliated with the BNP and Jamaat.

During a popular YouTube talk show last year, Mohammad A Arafat, who now serves as a lawmaker from the ruling party, described a Facebook-based online survey that reflected a huge anti-government sentiment as mostly voted by the BNP, Jamaat, and other extremist groups.  

It raises a question: Is social media entirely dominated by loyalists of the opposition? Where have the supporters of the ruling party disappeared to? Have they ceased using Facebook?

Regardless of their attempts to dismiss or downplay the online reactions, it is undeniable that these responses generate an unsettling and disconcerting atmosphere for the influential. 

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The ruling party, in 2021, reportedly undertook an unprecedented initiative to prepare a 100,000-member cyber force to counter opposition forces on virtual platforms. But the desired outcome remains elusive. 

In contrast, some others argue that the reactions indicate growing dissatisfaction with the ruling party and the state agencies. The people’s discontent reached such an extreme level that even news of their deaths brings a tragic happiness to them. 

As there is a risk of facing legal action for expressing their feelings through comments, the people opt for ‘haha’ reaction as a safer outlet. 

Their stance has been endorsed in the Global Expression Report-2022, where Bangladesh secured the 131st spot among 160 countries in the world. In terms of freedom of expression, the country received a score of 13 out of 100 across 25 indicators and was identified as 'in crisis' category, which is the worst.

However, it is true that the society has reached a distressing juncture of profound intolerance and lack of empathy towards dissent.

* Misbahul Haque is sub-editor of Prothom Alo's English edition