Kolkata: A young Muslim man from Jessore shared dozens of posts on Facebook, throughout 2020, of incidents where Hindus allegedly insulted Islam in Bangladesh. The majority of the 'news' he shared were fake and in October 2021 his luck with dodging accountability on social media ran out — he was arrested by the local police in Bangladesh and accused of spreading misinformation.
The man, who is out on bail, spoke to BOOM on condition of anonymity, and said he believed that all the news he shared were true.
"Everyone was talking about communal violence. So, I shared whatever information I got on Facebook," he said, adding he did not regret his actions.
He said he never attempted to verify the authenticity of such information because thousands of people had shared it on social media, which convinced him that the news was true. His arrest, he said, was unfortunate because posts on 'religion' get more attention than other news. The man added that despite knowing the 'risk', he chose to share posts on religion because they reached a wide number of users and in the process earned him 'friends' and 'followers' on Facebook.
He is not alone on his path of sharing unverified news on social media.
In October 21 - when fake news spread through social media led to one of the biggest nationwide attacks on Hindus – a university student in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, 200 kilometers away from Jessore, grudgingly deleted a Facebook post which claimed Islamist radicals had gangraped two Hindu women in Bangladesh. Soon after he posted the news, fact-checking websites investigated the claims and found them to be untrue. The student, a young Hindu man, however, continues to believe the news to be true and said he deleted the post in order to avoid legal trouble.
"The media later called it fake news to deliberately downplay the gravity of the situation. I deleted the post, not because I believed it was fake, but fearing arrest for telling the truth," he said.
Bangladesh's fake news factories, which frequently focus on manufacturing incidents that spark religious disharmony, have almost had a free run in the country. The 2021 incidents of violence followed a similar pattern — a Muslim man placed a Quran on the lap of a Hanuman deity and, one of his cohorts shot a video of the arrangement, adding his own commentary exhorting Muslims to 'wake up' in protest.
As the video went viral, Durga Puja pandals were set on fire by Muslim mobs. The violence went on for days, enabled by hundreds of social media posts claiming Hindus had insulted Islam. Weeks later, even after the truth had been revealed and the accused — two Muslim men — arrested, a cursory review of popular Islamist Facebook profiles from Bangladesh shows that the misleading videos have not been removed. They are still being shared, commented upon and used to spread hatred.
There is little coordinated effort to counter fake news in Bangladesh, except a few independent organisations attempting to wade through millions of misleading news produced everyday. Mainstream news media in the country is yet to take active interest in busting fake news, giving social media ample time to wreak havoc like it was witnessed in October last year.
Ameer Shakir, a journalist and editor of BOOM Bangladesh pointed out that a majority of the country's mainstream media took a restrained approach towards reporting on the October violence.
"There was a time when people only had the mainstream media for news and not reporting incidents of communal violence might have been a good practice back then in checking the spread of violence. But in the era of social media, when rumours are spreading fast and leading to more violence, an active role in debunking misinformation works better than silence," said Shakir.
Fake Identities For Anti-Muslim Posts
Over the past decade, Facebook has been found to be a primary medium that enabled the spread of fake news, which in turn resulted in incidents of violence across Bangladesh.
BOOM spoke to fact-checkers, writers, activists and several residents of Bangladesh to understand how fake news — much like in India — has been instrumental in fomenting unrest, and targeting minorities in the country. What we learnt is that it is not merely misinformation that keeps creating unrest; the advent of social media has also helped amplify the spread of religious intolerance and bigotry in the society, creating an atmosphere when a single spark of misinformation can start a prairie fire of religious violence.
The impact of social media posts can be estimated from the response one Md. Anamoul, a Bangladeshi youth who hails from Brahmanbaria district and lives in Doha, Qatar, received on his Facebook posts. His posts on Bangladesh cricket, Lionel Messi, the superiority of Islam and demanding release of religious leaders from Bangladesh jails, as well as selfies, attracted between two to 250 responses. But one video of a protest in Cumilla following the alleged insult to Quran at the Durga Puja pandal that he shared from his profile at 5.56 pm on October 13 - with the accompanying text seeking justice - was shared more than 105,000 times. The video drew more than one million views, 1,100 comments and 19,000 responses.
In 2018, two Bangladeshi research scholars studying in South Korean universities authored a paper on the pattern of violence that has emerged over the past decade. It pointed out that in several cases where Hindus were accused of insulting Islam, the accused argued that Facebook profiles had been created by unknown parties in their name and used to spread morphed photos and incendiary posts.
Among the examples they cited is the much-talked-about case from 2016 involving a fisherman of Brahmanbaria, Rasaraj Das.
Somoy TV journalist, Omar Faroque had highlighted in an investigative report how the local residents unanimously said that it was impossible for Das to operate a social media account, while some others alleged that Faruk Mia, a leader of Bangladesh's ruling party, the Awami League, used one of Das' cousins to create an account in his name and later used the account to post the content to get back at Das over a professional dispute.
The post - allegedly one of Hindu deity Shiva morphed on an image of the Islamic pilgrimage site Kaaba — went viral. Das was attacked by a mob and later arrested and Muslim mobs set fire to 150 homes, looted and vandalised at least 20 temples. Several minority rights groups later claimed that their investigations have found that it was Mia who was behind the post. The case is still under investigation and the police have not made it clear who the real culprit is. Meanwhile, Das is out on bail.
The 2021 incident of violence followed a similar pattern — a Muslim man placed a Quran in the lap of a Hanuman deity, one of his accomplices shot a video of the arrangement and posted it on Facebook. As the video went viral, Durga Puja pandals were set on fire and the violence went on for days, enabled by hundreds of social media posts claiming Hindus had insulted Islam.
"It has become a pattern that anti-Islamic posts will be made creating fake IDs in the names of Hindus or Buddhists, or by cloning or hacking into their accounts, and then the excuse of hurting religious sentiments will be used for targeting the whole community. This has been repeated time and again since 2012," Ajanta Deb Roy, a Bangladeshi who now lives in London, said.
Deb Roy runs an organisation called Humane First that aspires to create a dialogue between people from different religions in order to challenge the rising religious intolerance in the country.
Roy points at a 2012 incident, where a group of miscreants tagged a Buddhist man on a 'blasphemous' photo in Ramu district in Bangladesh and started a riot, as the first of the dozens of such incidents that have been happening in Bangladesh regularly since then. The man, allegedly falsely accused of insulting Islam, went missing that night and there's no trace of him for a decade now. The violence led to the destruction of 250 Buddha statues and 18 monasteries in Bangladesh. Close to 900 people were named in the chargesheet, including prominent Muslim political leaders, but most of the accused roam free.
In 2018, the Bangladesh government enacted the Digital Security Act (DSA) .
However, the media and rights organisations have alleged the DSA has been enacted aiming to curb freedom of speech and book voices critical of the government, instead of dealing with the spread of hatred and misinformation.
Biplab De, the office secretary of Bangladesh Puja Udjapan Parishad said that the impunity with which the culprits of the Ramu incident of violence operated and the failure of the country's legal system to penalise them have led to similar incidents — bolder in their fake claims and more violent in their aftermath. The Parishad is the umbrella organisation for groups that arrange Hindu religious festivals in the country.
Bangladesh is one of the south Asian countries witnessing a speedy growth of internet access and social media usage. Dhaka was ranked second in the world in the list of cities according to the number of Facebook users in 2017. A recent Polish study said Bangladesh had 47.2 million Facebook users till May 2021 and the number was 28 percent of the total population of the country.
According to another report, internet users increased by 9.5% between 2019 and 2020, taking the total number to 66.44 million, or 41% of the country's population, in January 2020. The country's literacy rate stood at 74.7% in 2020.
All Quiet On Mainstream Media
The mainstream media's inability or unwillingness to report promptly on incidents of violence sparked by social media posts has also contributed to rapid and unhindered spread of fake news, and violent offline responses to it.
Mahbubul Haque Bhuiyan, a former journalist and assistant professor at the department of mass communication and journalism, Cumilla University, has been irregular on social media of late, even though he checks the mainstream news websites once every few hours for updates. He had no idea of what was happening on October 13, 2021 until a journalist informed him in the afternoon.
"I was checking the websites of the major mainstream media outlets all morning. But there was no news. It was only when I logged into Facebook that I saw it was flooding with that viral live video and that still photo, with people who were sharing them blaming the Hindus right away. There was no news in most of the mainstream media outlets till night and misinformation spreaders had a free run on social media," he said.
As social media became the only platform offering information, it didn't matter if it was true or false.
While violence raged all day on October 13, Cumilla calmed down in the evening. According to a local Hindu man who did not want to be identified, it was again, a Facebook post by a person with a Muslim name that was instrumental in reining in the violence. The mainstream media was still fumbling with the incident with not a single concrete fact-check published or broadcast by them.
Kazi Shariare Islam claimed in his post uploaded at 6 pm on October 13 that he lived next to the first pandal which was attacked during the October violence and said that he strongly suspected a conspiracy to disturb communal harmony. His post was shared more than 25,000 times.
"It is too easy to see it through. Someone has done this intentionally to engineer a communal riot. But who is going to make these mad people understand this? They keep spreading rumours - the Quran was kept under Durga's feet, they are performing puja keeping the Quran in front, they haven't stopped the puja despite the priest being asked to do so and so on. But there has been no worship since last night," he wrote.
Dhaka-based author and journalist Ahmede Hussain, who previously worked as the literary editor of leading Bangladeshi English daily The Daily Star, pointed to the flip side of the coin when he said that the media in Bangladesh was not equipped to report on communal violence amidst a spread of rumours.
"To deal with such a situation, the media needs to engage in responsible reporting, report facts with due diligence and debunk rumors. But the mainstream media in Bangladesh has little expertise in fact-checking. There are a few dedicated websites for fact-check but the mainstream media houses do not have their own fact-check teams, which is essential not only in Bangladesh but also for the media across the Indian subcontinent, where people tend to believe whatever they hear," Hussain said.
Suliman Niloy, who heads the multimedia team at Bangladesh's first internet news portal bdnews24.com, however, said that the mainstream media did act late, but when they started reporting they did everything to bring out the truth.
"In general, lots of Bangladeshi mainstream media report the incidents of communal violence carefully as any wrong information could lead it to further spread. This time, too, the media took a few hours assessing the situation and then in verifying claims and counterclaims. But once they started reporting in full swing, they extensively reported the turn of events, busted rumours and carried investigative pieces within very few days," said Niloy.
He pointed out that it was the media that first revealed the name of the main culprit even before the government did. "It was necessary that the people knew the name, because it was a Muslim who kept the Quran at the feet of the idol. But the government was taking time in revealing his identity," said Niloy.
Facts Vs Emotions
With an atmosphere of religious distrust, people with resources and willingness to verify news in Bangladesh, have ended up sharing fake news.
Exiled secular blogger and minority rights activists Asad Noor, had shared a piece of news describing an alleged incident of gang-rape of three Hindu women, including two minors. He deleted the post after a fact-checking website found it to be fake. Noor said that he shared the information "at the heat of the moment", trying to highlight the matter to draw the attention of the administration, which he suspected was trying to suppress news of attacks on Hindus.
Gobinda Chandra Pramanik, an advocate practicing in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, is also the head of Hindu rights group, Jatiyo Hindu Mahajote. He shared a number of pieces of information that were later found to be fake. Pramanik said that he shared the information "in a hurry" to draw the administration's attention.
"I was flooded with phone calls from panicked Hindus from all over the country. Spreading news of the situation was of utmost importance because never in recent years did the Hindus face attacks all over the country," he said.
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With even public figures sharing misinformation, the seven-member fact-checker team of FactWatch, an initiative of the Center for Critical and Qualitative Studies, at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, in Dhaka, had a tough time debunking one fake news after another. So was the case of the fact-checker websites, AFP Fact Check and Boom Bangladesh.
"Trouble makers took this opportunity of the mainstream media's silence to feed people with misinformation," said FactWatch team member Apon Das. Their team had to debunk four to five fake news stories on Bangladesh, every day.
"What Bangladesh needs is digital literacy in the sense that they would be able to tell real news from fake news. A few simple things like Google reverse image search and search of key words used as text on images and videos can be taught in schools, colleges and universities, by way of which the knowledge should reach many families," Das said.
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of the book, 'Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment'.