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How Social Media Will be Weaponized in Bangladesh’s Election

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How Social Media Will be Weaponized in Bangladesh’s Election

As Bangladesh preps for its election, social media is overflowing with information – and being weaponized by political parties.

How Social Media Will be Weaponized in Bangladesh’s Election
Credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

As Bangladesh prepares for its 2024 elections, a familiar but chilling specter haunts the political landscape: the potential misuse of social media, which has reshaped the landscape since the 2018 parliamentary election.

The stakes are high. More than 50 million Bangladeshis, more than half the population, are on social media, particularly young people who constitute a critical voting bloc. Yet, their disillusionment with the state of justice, education, and security casts a shadow over the political promises of a digitalized Bangladesh.

Facebook reigns supreme in the country, with over 93 percent of Bangladesh’s social media users scrolling through its feeds.

Political parties have seized this opportunity, crafting narratives carefully tailored to resonate with their target audiences. 

The ruling Awami League paints a picture of progress and praises Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s virtues, while the Bangladesh Nationalist Party spins a tale of democracy under siege, urging followers to resist authoritarianism.

In the realm of digital political campaigns, the Awami League has invested in 1,653 paid posts since 2022. There has been a notable surge in 2023, encompassing 1,450 paid posts, including 84 posts in December alone, averaging five posts a day. The financial footprint tallies approximately 490,000 Bangladeshi taka ($4,479), averaging 296 taka ($2.70) per ad, with premium ads costing 9,999 taka ($92).

Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which is boycotting the election, maintains a formidable presence despite fewer paid posts (67), spending a substantial 950,000 taka ($8,684) and averaging 14,200 taka($130) per ad, with premium ads costing 69,999 taka ($640). Interestingly, the BNP took a spending hiatus in December, engaging in only 14 posts.

Audience response has become pivotal in this financial ballet. The Awami League’s continuous investments still generate higher laugh reactions and lower interaction rates. The BNP, despite the spending break, secures higher pre-election interaction rates, challenging assumptions about financial investment and online resonance.

Against this backdrop, the youth demographic — constituting more than half of the total voters, most of whom use social media — has emerged as a critical force. 

And while political promises of a digital Bangladesh and a prosperous future are present in ongoing campaigns, the reality is disheartening.

While 74.2 percent of young voters express a willingness to participate in the upcoming election, 57.3 percent perceive a worsening state of justice in the country. More than 75 percent want to leave Bangladesh and seek better opportunities abroad, citing deteriorating standards of living, education, security, and freedom.

This disillusionment manifests in the brain drain index by the Fund for Peace, where Bangladesh scores 7.6, exceeding the global average of 5.5. Despite being a target demographic for political campaigns, young people grapple with a stark reality that transcends promises, potentially affecting online political engagement and election campaigns.

The battle against misinformation deploys a spectrum of strategies, from legal measures to internet control. Before the 2018 election, the Election Commission engaged a team for social media monitoring to curb potential political misinformation and harmful content, resulting in arrests of alleged misinformation-spreaders.

In subsequent months, the government enacted the Digital Security Act 2018, later amended as the Cybersecurity Act 2023, which faced severe criticism for threatening freedom of speech. 

Despite these measures, the Election Commission continues to grapple with the complexity of misinformation identification, with social media platforms becoming fertile grounds for unchecked political fabrications.

In this intricate web of misinformation and disinformation, Bangladesh has witnessed the emergence of deepfakes as a potent tool. While not as sophisticated as those in North America or Europe, these manipulated pieces of content wield considerable impact in a country where 60.88 percent of users trust the misinformation they encounter and interact with.

A Facebook photo of BNP leader, Rashed Iqbal has become the canvas for an auto-customized video with fabricated audio disseminated through social media channels. Despite the watermark identifying it as manipulated content, the video has gained traction, highlighting the public’s susceptibility to such content.

Similarly, many instances of fake content result from basic editing rather than meticulous creation. A viral Facebook post featuring a fabricated photo of a female political leader from the BNP wearing a bikini serves as a stark example. The image, created by swapping faces with a Russian model, has deceived many despite its apparent falsification. 

These instances underscore the challenges posed by misinformation, deepening the digital divide and emphasizing the urgent need for enhanced digital literacy measures.

Bangladesh and its closest neighbor, India, share higher social media penetration rates amid significant digital illiteracy, creating a vulnerable landscape for misinformation. 

Religious misinformation, when politically motivated, adds tension to the social fabric, potentially harming stability. The rise of Hindu nationalism in India influences dynamics in Bangladesh, contributing to the spread of religion and political misinformation.

The Awami League has always been concerned with the power of the internet for political purposes. Before the 2018 election, a large volume of pro-Awami League misinformation was spread online. This time, AFP uncovered hundreds of fake articles published in international media outlets praising the Awami League, which garnered the attention of social media users when shared online.

The Awami League plans to launch a sizable online election campaign with 8,000 Center for Research and Information-trained activists from the Students and Youth League of the Awami League’s two political wings. This online campaign resembles the Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT Cell, a digital army that works for the Indian government’s interests.

Pro-Awami League and pro-Bangladesh Nationalist Party propaganda are already on the field, complicating the scenario, with online campaigns becoming battlegrounds for manipulating election outcomes. Against this backdrop, the potential repercussions on social-political stability loom large.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.