Disinformation risks rise during the election

Different biases play major role in the spread of fake newsDeutsche Welle

We are living in an information-dependent world where information is generated anytime and anywhere. Information is power in today's world. The present world is under incessant assault of disinformation and misinformation. Disinformation and misinformation pose as serious problems and threats. As a third world country, Bangladesh is not immune.

Due to the absence of transparency and accurate policies and also the lack of fact checking, many Bangladeshi news media platforms are rife with misleading and fake news. This is not just risky, but a serious threat to the Bangladesh construct. The popularity of social media and its wide acceptance among people, make the fight against disinformation and misinformation even harder.

While the two words, 'disinformation' and 'misinformation' are often interchanged, there is actually an extensive lexical difference between the two. Disinformation is basically used for political purposes. Disinformation implies false information spread by governments, intelligence agencies, political parties or organised groups. For example, misleading news can be about a country's military strength or strategy. Intentionally propagated misleading or biased information is disinformation.

Misinformation, on the other hand, is information that is incorrect, but not intentionally spread to create confusion. There is no specific political motive behind this. While misinformation in most cases is spread randomly, multiple political forces are involved in disinformation and so it is hard to thwart disinformation in many instances.

The spread of disinformation is on a steady increase by propagating fake news, and creating imaginary persons or organisations to lend credibility to false narratives. In a society rife with an erosion of trust, election manipulations and social divides, disinformation can have far-reaching consequences.

In 2016, Russia took up an extensive propaganda strategy of disinformation, using the IT firm Cambridge Analytica to influence the US presidential election. Later analysis revealed that by spreading disinformation among the voters to create confusion, the presidential election was negatively impacted.

Disinformation and misinformation harms social and political stability. These harmful influences damaged social cohesion, harm cooperation and obstruct progress. Such misleading information weakens the foundation of the democratic system and also diminishes trust in political institutions. As a result, a significant threat to political stability is created.

Intentionally spread fake or misleading information can influence public opinion and manipulate the election process. Misleading propaganda can instigate political polarisation and widen the social divide. Such false and fabricated information creates unrest among the people and can push them towards violence.

Disinformation and misinformation can also have a detrimental effect on communal relations. When such information is intentionally aimed at a specific community and spread, this can instigate a bigoted mindset. Spreading false information about certain communities can marginalise them even further and destroy social harmony. There are examples in this regard of communal attacks in Bangladesh over the past few years. These were instigated by false news going viral on social media. In 2012, news spread of the religion Islam being defamed from the Facebook account of a Buddhist youth Uttam Barua in Ramu, Cox's Bazar. That Facebook post sparked of communal violence in Ramu. Relations between the Muslim and Buddhist communities were damaged.

The strategy of using disinformation in campaigning weakens the credibility and effectiveness of election institutions. It can also decrease people's confidence in the capability of these institutions to run a free and fair election

It is speculated that both disinformation and misinformation may be used as part of a strategy, centering the forthcoming national election in Bangladesh. During the elections, such fake and false information is used for political objectives in the news media and the social media. According to experts, as the national elections draws near, the incidence of spreading false and baseless information is on the rise. Such information plants the seeds of doubt and disbelief in the minds of the voters and destroys the democratic process. This may damage the legitimacy of the election.

The strategy of using disinformation in campaigning weakens the credibility and effectiveness of election institutions. It can also decrease people's confidence in the capability of these institutions to run a free and fair election. There are already clear indications of this. For example, there was a flurry of activities and disinformation over the Washington visit of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Quoting Indian news media, various news media in Bangladesh said that Bangladesh would feature prominently in Modi-Biden talks. But no mention was made of any such discussion in the Indian foreign secretary's briefing about the visit and the agenda, nor in the Modi-Biden joint statement.

Bangladesh's competence in tackling such challenges is very weak. Fact-check and other tools have still not gained currency here. The people are still not adequately informed about ways to prevent disinformation. A multifaceted system is required to tackle disinformation and misinformation. This includes an increase in the competence of the news media, increase in critical thinking, encouragement of responsible journalism, cooperating with the social media, supporting independent research, promoting public awareness, rendering regulatory frameworks more dynamic and people-oriented, and building up partnerships.

Publishing information with responsibility by verifying sources and avoiding the spread of unverified information can held in preventing the spread of misinformation. Placing importance on verifying information before releasing news can held in preventing the spread of false information. It is essential, for the sake of upholding freedom of expression, to prevent such misinformation and rumours. It is very important for the sake of Bangladesh political and social stability, to understand this matter. It is particularly important to take all this onto cognizance as soon as possible in order to ensure the forthcoming election is free and fair.

Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies is holding training workshops in Dhaka and various divisional towns in order to build awareness and capacity in this matter. From this experience it has been clear that the capacity in this area is very weak at a government and non-government level. There is ample scope for work in this area. The present generation is growing up with a digital identity. If the reach of artificial intelligence and machine learning increases, it is assumed that the use of disinformation will increase too. We must increase awareness about this through the curricula at the secondary and higher secondary level of education. Awareness about various aspects of technology and cyber safety must be mobilised among students through various workshops. Bangladesh must prepare to fight against disinformation and misinformation for the same of social and political stability. There is no alternative to this if Bangladesh is to survive as a just, disciplined, communally harmonious and strong democratic state.

* Maj. Gen. ANM Muniruzzaman (retd) is president, Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS)