According to an investigative story published recently in the Financial Times, pro-government news outlets and influencers in Bangladesh are promoting disinformation by using cheap Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools to produce deep fake videos. The FT report identified several AI-generated videos to spread disinformation against the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the U.S., which has pressured the Bangladeshi government to hold free and fair elections.
Following the publication of the FT report, the controversial videos were either not easily accessible or removed. To close observers of Bangladeshi affairs, what the FT report said came hardly as a surprise.
There have been several reports and investigations in the past that either implicated or alleged that the Bangladesh government and ruling Awami League (AL) members were behind the systematic promotion of disinformation against opposition leaders and critics of the government.
On December 20, 2018, Facebook issued a public statement saying that the company took down nine pages and six accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior against the opposition in Bangladesh.
Facebook said that the pages were designed to look like a credible news outlet and were posting pro-government and anti-opposition content. In their investigation, Facebook found that the accounts were linked to individuals associated with the Bangladesh government.
In September 2023, Agence France-Press’ fact-checking team in Bangladesh unearthed another coordinated campaign of hundreds of op-eds by fake experts praising the Bangladeshi government’s policies. AFP said that the “articles overwhelmingly endorse narratives pushed by Dhaka, with some posted on Bangladesh government websites.”
The news agency analyzed more than 700 articles published in at least 60 domestic and international news sites with by-lines attributed to 35 fake names with fake affiliations to reputed universities, including Australia’s Griffith University, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Delaware in the U.S., University of Toronto in Canada, and the National University of Singapore among others.
Qadaruddin Shishir, AFP’s fact-check editor and a pioneering figure in fact-checking in Bangladesh, told The Diplomat that in his seven-year career in fact-checking, he found that the government, ruling party and their associates are dominating political disinformation in Bangladesh. “They have spent thousands of dollars promoting disinformation in the social media platform, Facebook.”
Opposition-affiliated groups too are promoting disinformation, he added.
However, the reason why the government and its affiliates are promoting political disinformation is unclear.
Disinformation is usually aimed at influencing public opinion, particularly ahead of elections. However, over the past decade, it has been evident in Bangladesh that public opinion does not matter to the AL government.
On January 7, Bangladesh is scheduled to vote in general elections. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is set to be re-elected as her government has jailed hundreds and thousands of leaders and activists of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and other opposition parties. Moreover, the BNP is boycotting the election as it believes that no election under Hasina will be free and fair. Consequently, voters will have no alternative but to vote for the AL. Like the controversial general elections of 2014 and 2018, 2024’s polls will be flawed. But it will give Hasina another term in office.
Indicators for measuring free speech and free media paint a grim picture of Bangladesh. The 2023 World Press Freedom Index puts Bangladesh in 163rd position, 11 places behind Taliban-ruled Afghanistan (152) at just one place ahead of Putin’s Russia (164). Freedom House ranks Bangladesh as “partly free.” A draconian law like the Digital Security Act (DSA) was used to arrest and jail hundreds of people, including teenagers, women, academics, writers, students and political activists for using social media to criticize the government.
It is evident that in Bangladesh, public opinion does not matter much in changing the political discourse. Why then is the Hasina government and the ruling party allegedly promoting disinformation?
In an article published in the European Consortium for Political Research, researchers Nikolina Klatt and Vanessa Boese-Schlosser point out that “where there is authoritarianism there is disinformation” because “the disinformation economy provides opportunities for actors who fuel polarisation on an industrial scale.”
According to sources in Bangladesh, who spoke to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity, various government agencies, pro-government journalists and some young tech entrepreneurs have teamed up to promote disinformation and this has become a credible way to generate income on an industrial scale. In addition to promoting disinformation, they engage in hacking or shutting down Facebook accounts of political opponents and critics. Trolling too has become a lucrative business in Bangladesh.
Former Minister of Post and Telecommunication Mustafa Jabbar admitted to a private TV channel that a group of boys and girls working for the government were able to hack and even close down Facebook accounts.
Geopolitics has also prompted a surge of disinformation in Bangladesh. In December 2021, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on officials of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion for gross human rights abuse. Soon after, the Biden administration became the target of disinformation.
The AFP fact-checking team found that a core narrative of the plethora of articles written by fake experts on Bangladesh was to promote fierce criticism of Washington. One of the deep fake videos mentioned in the recent FT report involved an AI-generated anchor lambasting the U.S.
How this disinformation scenario in Bangladesh will evolve after the election in Bangladesh remains to be seen. With the growing use of AI and deep fakes in the disinformation spectrum, we will likely see more deep fakes circulating in Bangladesh. Tech companies like Facebook need to play a greater role in combating disinformation in Bangladesh.