Fake news has been a recent focus of real news lately. Fictional news stories created for the Internet clicks and ad dollars they generate have been identified as a problem both in the U.S. and elsewhere, including, of all places, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is a constitutional democracy committed to protecting the rights of its citizens. As in the U.S., Bangladesh has suffered acts of harassment against religious minorities. Militants in Bangladesh have used social media to spread hate by using fake news disseminated on Facebook.
After a posting recently appeared on Facebook showing a faked image of a Hindu deity placed inside a building at the center of Islam’s holiest mosque in Mecca, Islamist extremists vandalized 15 Hindu temples and 100 homes in Nasirnager, Bangladesh, northeast of Dhaka. It didn’t matter to radicals that the image was clearly, and poorly, Photoshopped. The image was used as a pretext for extremist elements to vent their hatred against Hindus, who are a religious minority in Bangladesh.
Swiftly, the government took action to protect its citizens.
Based on video from the crime scenes, nearly 80 people were arrested for their roles in the crimes. Charges have been filed against multiple individuals. The government announced these cases would be handled by its Speedy Trial Tribunal to make sure that victims received justice quickly.
At the same time, the government worked to try to prevent these kinds of attacks in the future. Two police officers were disciplined for their failure to contain the attacks. The government deployed extra police and members of its elite Rapid Action Battalion and paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh forces to protect Hindus in the area. High-level government officials visited the sites of the desecrations and attacks to console and assure residents that the government would prosecute the vandals and protect its citizens, regardless of their religion. In addition, the government blocked 35 web sites that spread hate and foment violence.
Nations worldwide have seen the force-multiplier effect of hate spread over the Internet. Extremists in France, Belgium, the U.S. and Bangladesh have been remotely radicalized by inflammatory words and images spread over the Internet. During the attack and siege in July at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, militants used customers’ phones to post images of the attack to the Internet after telling staff to turn on the restaurant’s wireless network.
In response to the Dhaka café attack, the government rescued 13 hostages and ended the siege. Since then, many suspects have been arrested and indicted. Recently, government prosecutors charged the leader of a notorious local militant group and nine others for their roles in the attack. Trials will start in early January.
While the government of Bangladesh is cracking down on those who use the power of the Internet for evil, it is also using the reach and immediacy of the Internet to do good.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – whose father, the founder of modern Bangladesh, was killed in an act of terror – drafted the nation’s zero-tolerance policy on terrorism. She has been using the Internet to videoconference with people at all levels of Bangladesh’s 64 administrative regions to create nationwide awareness of militancy and a mass push against terror.
The government has also held drills to practice interrupting Internet service around an extremist attack or hostage situation to prevent militants from posting video, images and other real-time content to the Internet.
The government of Bangladesh is committed to peaceful free speech and a free press, but will not allow terrorists to use the Internet to spread falsehoods or to multiply the effects of horrific actions.
The world has come to gravely understand the power of the Internet to spread lies and hate, and to radicalize unstable individuals to violence. Bangladesh has unfortunately found itself at the frontlines of this new war, but is well-equipped to fight for its citizens’ safety and constitutional protections.
Bangladesh is committed to rule of law and counter-terrorism domestically and with its allies around the world.
Sajeeb Wazed is the son of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the nation’s chief information technology adviser.