The Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) cyber unit has identified around 2,500 Facebook pages which are fanning communal hatred in Bangladesh by spreading hate speeches.
Security forces say these posts have led to communal attacks such as the recent torching of Hindu homes in Thakurpara village in Rangpur, and warn that they are also being used by militant organisations to recruit members.
However, the authorities have so far been powerless to prevent the spread of hate speeches on social networking sites such as Facebook.
“If you shut one page down, then three more pages crop up,” CTTC cyber unit Deputy Commissioner Alimuzzaman said.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told the Dhaka Tribune that law enforcers had been directed to give top priority to deal with information on social media that may incite communal violence.
“The instigators should be arrested within the shortest possible time,” he said, asking people to have patience and faith in the government.
He said the support of the media was needed in this regard.
“If they report more about the issue, people will become more aware and will not fall in any such traps. We can assure that anybody who spread hate speeches and instigate communal clashes will not be spared,” the minister said.
What is hate speech?
Hate speech is any abusive or threatening use of language which advocates hatred against a particular group based on its religion, race or sexual orientation. In Bangladesh, religious and ethnic minorities are often the target of such inflammatory rhetoric.
Dhaka University law department Associate Professor Mahbubur Rahman said a speech in any form could be considered offensive based on six criteria: the context and purpose of the speech; the author and impact of his speeches; accuracy of the speech; the means of circulating the speech; and the probability of violence taking place as a result.
These criteria are included in the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of the spread of national, racial or religious hatred, which was constituted in 2012.
“Social media posts, aiming to stir up hatred on the grounds of race, religion and sexual orientation can be considered as hate speeches,” Mahbubur said. “Such speeches are becoming increasingly common in Bangladesh.”
Fake Facebook posts
People who spread communal hatred often create fake social media accounts and post offensive contents to stir up tension.
Thousands of religious extremists were mobilized to take part in the November 10 attack on Hindus in Thakurpara village in Rangpur in two ways: through announcements over loudspeakers; and through Facebook.
The ringleader, Alamgir Hossain, came across a defamatory Facebook post shared from a fake ID under the name of Md Titu. But the profile contained a picture of Titu Chandra Roy, a resident of Thakurpara who is illiterate, according to his family.
Alamgir did not waste time. With the help of five of his friends and local mosque Imam, Sirajul Islam, successfully rallied locals into attacking Hindu houses last Friday.
Rangpur Range Deputy Inspector General of Police Khandoker Golam Faruk said another attempt was made a month earlier to incite people to carry out a communal attack in Lalmonirhat. But it was averted thanks to timely response of the law enforcers.
The 2012 communal attack on Ramu’s Buddhist community and last year’s attacks targeting the Hindu community in Brahmanbaria’s Nasirnagar were also triggered by defamatory - but fake - Facebook posts.
Last year, at least 192 houses were vandalised, seven people were killed and 197 temples and monasteries were destroyed in communal attacks, according to Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK).
In the first nine months of this year, at least 29 houses were vandalised, 166 temples and monasteries were destroyed, and 57 people were injured in similar attacks.
Security forces grapple with fake IDs
A Facebook search revealed that home-grown militants and political activists use the network as an effective tool for rallying support and spreading their dogmas.
Militant groups such as Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh and Ansarullah Bangla Team are using an unspecified number of Facebook pages and accounts to recruit members and instigate people.
Investigators said doctored images are spread through fake Facebook IDs and pages created only weeks or months before an attack.
The speeches of Ansarullah’s spiritual leader, Jasim Uddin Rahmani, are available on several Facebook pages.
Facebook has recently shut down a number of such pages after getting requests from Bangladeshi law enforcers. But the number is still very low.
DC Alimuzzaman of the CTTC cyber unit said Bangladesh has around 25 million Facebook users.
“Police have so far identified 2,500 pages that spread communal hatred and instigate people,” he said. “Our best option is to keep an eye on these accounts and shut them down when they post controversial content.”
When asked about arresting people running these IDs, he said the admins were tech-savvy. “Most of them are operating these pages and IDs from outside the country (and) those staying in the country are constantly on the move,” he said.
Investigators said many of these admins were staying in India, the Middle East and even in Europe. Currently, CTTC and CID are working closely to tackle the problem.
What is the solution?
Shah Alam, CID Additional DIG in-charge of forensic training institutions, told the Dhaka Tribune that people, especially the youth, need to be made aware against being influenced by these posts.
Peace and Conflict Studies Chairman Zahid Ul Arefin Choudhury was also in favour of raising awareness among students by instructing teachers of schools and colleges to give lectures on the issues.
DU Associate Professor Mahbubur said the best way to tackle the situation was to constantly monitor social media for hate speeches and punish those who are trying to spread them.
DU criminology teacher Syed Mahfujul Haque Marjan pointed out that people unconsciously get prepared for violent protests when going through Facebook posts defaming their religions.
“Preventing such posts all the time is not possible but identifying and putting the culprits on trial will be more effective,” he said.
Marjan said the law enforcers could ratchet up negotiations with Facebook authorities to close down pages and profiles spreading communal hatred.
According to the Facebook, its response rate for Bangladesh was 24.5% and the emergency rate was 40% until December last year.
DUIT Associate Professor Shariful Islam said the law enforcers could use the help of Internet Service Providers to shut down such pages.
“They can make a list of these sites and update the list regularly,” he said. “But most of the Internet users do not know where they have to go and where to complain.”