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EC concerned about social media rumour mill

  • Published at 02:04 pm December 12th, 2018
Representational photo Reuters

Social network posts, statuses, YouTube content, web portal posts and internet activities are being monitored

The Election Commission and other authorities concerned are becoming increasingly concerned about the social media rumour mill triggering unrest during the upcoming 11th parliamentary election.

There are serious concerns that the misuse of social media and the trend of spreading falsehoods could inevitably cause polls-time violence. Curbing the rumours circulating on social network platforms is one of the biggest challenges the commission is presently facing.

Under the circumstances, the Election Commission has held at least three meetings with the government officials concerned. The commission also formed their own team to monitor social media closely. 

Commission officials are monitoring social network posts, statuses, YouTube content, web portal posts and internet activities related to the next general polls, said sources.

Social media under surveillance

According to insiders, the Election Commission initially had plans to shut down access to popular social network platforms, and had a meeting with stakeholders such as Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) in this regard.

Those at the meeting decided that shutting down access to social media could do more harm than good. So, the commission decided to monitor the platforms instead.

Several Election Commission Secretariat officials said the circulation of false stories is a major concern, and many Bangladeshis living abroad have a history of engaging in such malpractice.

A number of IT experts from the commission secretariat pointed out that those who spread falsehoods from inside Bangladesh can be brought to trial, but those who do it from abroad cannot be prevented from running the rumour mill.

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Many social media accounts, run by Bangladeshis living abroad are under the surveillance of the Election Commission. The commission is also contacting and warning their relatives living in Bangladesh.

Addressing the issue, Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) Unit Chief Monirul Islam recently said: “We are considering cyber crimes a significant threat ahead of the 11th general polls. 

“The police are engaged in a public campaign urging people to report objectionable content in cyber space—as soon as they notice it.”

Social network platforms such as: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube are widely used by the people of Bangladesh, along with many online news portals.

The commission is especially concerned about fake news portals and false social network accounts, as they are primarily used for spreading falsehoods.

Social media: Tool for anarchy?

Bangladesh has witnessed numerous instances of grotesque violence, sparked by a rapid spread of rumours using various social media platforms.

On September 29 and 30, 2012, local mobs led a series of midnight attacks on Buddhist monasteries, shrines, and the houses of Buddhist inhabitants in Ramu upazila in Cox’s Bazar district..

On October 30, 2016, at least 17 Hindu temples and more than 50 houses were attacked and vandalized by a mob—triggered by a Facebook post defaming Islam posted from the account of an illiterate fisherman.

In November of 2017, more than 30 homes belonging to Hindu families in Rangpur’s Thakurpara Village were ransacked and looted before being set on fire by a mob because of a rumoured Facebook post.

The latest example of rumour mongering occurred this year during the students’ movement for safe roads. Along with the protesters on the streets, thousands of social media users shared news about the murder and rape of protesting students.

Responding to query, ICT research organization Preneur Lab CEO Arif Nizami said: “The social network platforms are abuzz with activities centering on the upcoming election. Dozens of new pages have been created by individuals and political parties.

“The government and the Election Commission are also quite active. Unchecked spreading of propaganda and false rumours instigating unrest could turn a peaceful election into a violent one. We have taken our own initiative to curb the spread of fake news.”

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Election Commission System Analyst Farzana Akhter said: “Our team, under the directive of the commission, is monitoring social media round the clock. However, nothing suspicious has been observed so far.

“We will boost our surveillance as the election draws closer.”

Meanwhile, commission Secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed said: “We decided to monitor the social media platforms over concerns regarding the spread of propaganda. 

“Aside from tasking various government organizations to monitor social media, we are also doing it ourselves. Those trying to create unrest or foil the election will be prosecuted under the fullest extent of the law.”

The commission official added that social media platforms are being monitored 24/7. 

Various other government entities, such as the Information Ministry, are also actively fighting the spread of misinformation through online media. Last week, six suspects were arrested over charges of spreading falsehoods and rumours online via fake social media accounts.