Bangladesh ruling party mobilizes online propaganda army to target next election
The ruling Awami League in Bangladesh has started training tens of thousands of cadres to wage a propaganda war on social media in preparation for the next general election, which is more than two years away, ruling party officials said.
The party was working to create a platform of 100,000 “online activists to prevent rumors and propaganda” on social media sites ahead of the polls, said Md. Abdus Sabur, secretary of the Awami League’s science and technology affairs subcommittee, who is heading the effort.
“We started the move in January this year. One and a half more years are needed to fulfill our target. We are working under the instructions of our party chief and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and Sajeeb Wazed, her information and technology advisor,” Sabur told BenarNews.
Wazed is Hasina’s only son. The 12th parliamentary election is likely to be held at the end of 2023 or in early 2024.
Sabur said the Awami League (AL) had already trained around 30,000 online activists across the country, who have begun work.
“Opposition activists use social media platforms to embarrass the government and confuse the common people, especially as the election is nearing,” Sabur said, adding that was why AL decided to take action.
“They are using this tactic because they do not have people to engage in street movements.”
AL’s explanation seemed “a little bit fishy,” said M. Hafizuddin Khan, a former bureaucrat who runs a campaign for good governance.
“What is propaganda for the Awami League might be the truth for the BNP. So how will it be identified?” Khan told BenarNews.
“I think it will be a reason for chaos on social media sites. Awami League already has a strong grip on every organ of the state.”
A 2020 report by Freedom House, a Washington NGO that conducts research and advocacy on political freedom and human rights, corroborated Khan’s observations.
“The ruling Awami League (AL) party has consolidated political power through sustained harassment of the opposition and those perceived to be allied with it, as well as of critical media and voices in civil society,” the Freedom on the Net 2020 report by the NGO said.
Facebook account ‘disappears’
Some of the chaos Khan spoke about may have already begun.
Last month, Robin Ahsan, a Bangladeshi publisher and public protest organizer, found that his Facebook account had disappeared overnight. He said he suspected his social media profile had been targeted because of his activism.
He said his account vanished after he had conducted a live event on Facebook demanding the release of an actress who had accused a politically-connected businessman of attempting to rape and murder her.
“I am not sure how or why my Facebook ID disappeared. I have organized several protests on various issues, but my Facebook ID vanished for the first time in August,” Ahsan told BenarNews.
He said he got his account back after communicating with Facebook authorities directly.
Often, a Facebook account is suspended when several other users complain about content on the account they say is distasteful to them.
One AL party worker, a “master trainer,” described how he and his colleagues use that Facebook feature and other methods.
“When we see any rumor on Facebook or Twitter, we follow three steps,” AL worker Shariful Islam Sharif told BenarNews.
The steps include writing posts countering the alleged rumor, reporting the specific Facebook account or page to the social media company via dozens of different accounts, and sending the profile information of the account to law enforcement agencies.
All of this requires a lot of manpower and coordination, because Bangladesh has one of the world’s fastest growing number of social media users annually. The South Asian nation saw 25 percent year-on-year growth in social media users, said a February report by Hootsuite, a social media platform.
With more than 45 million social media users, 27 percent of Bangladesh’s total population is active online, said Hootsuite, and research agency We Are Social.
Internet penetration in the country is more than 72 percent, according to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission.
Opposition criticizes Awami League plan
Meanwhile, a leader from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) said AL’s move to create “online activists” was not well intentioned.
“We think that the Awami League is preparing a skilled team of online activists, not to counter rumors and propaganda on social media but to fight against the truth,” and against those who are “unmasking the failure of the government,” Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, BNP’s senior joint secretary general, told BenarNews.
“The Awami League government is detached from the people because it came to power through highly controversial elections in 2014 and 2018. As a result, people will have something to say, at least on social media, if they get a chance. It is important for the ruling party to prevent such truths from coming out.”
Hasina, though, calls it “propaganda and conspiracy” against the government, AL’s general secretary Obaidul Quader said, quoting the PM from a Sept. 9 meeting.
“As the election gets closer, the level of propaganda is on the rise. We have to respond to this propaganda and must get united against these plots,” Quader said at a press conference.
Former bureaucrat Khan said that a non-party interim government during the election process would be fair to both the ruling dispensation and the opposition.
The BNP’s secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said that is party's demand as well. He told reporters on Saturday that the BNP would foil any effort to hold the election without such a government and a fair Election Commission.
The Awami League has won three consecutive parliamentary elections, in 2008, 2014 and 2018. The last two of those were criticized at home and abroad for alleged fraud and other irregularities.