POLITICAL space in Bangladesh is limited by several factors. Some of them are structural, others social, legal and political too. That points to a lack of interaction and accountability options for the citizens. The result of this has been the rise of social media as a political space which is not controlled totally by conventional control mechanisms.
Most people do make political statements on Facebook which they would never do elsewhere. They may even look down upon politics as it exists in Bangladesh. Yet, they express their opinions by posting them. Some do so less formally by liking or disliking statements of others. But there is no doubt that social media is a more politically inclusive space than Paltan Maidan space.
New global and Bangladesh reality
THE causes behind the rise of social media are many but are not unique to Bangladesh. In most places, it has risen dramatically and in the United States, it has become such a major issue that elections have been influenced by it. Trump has used social media extensively and its increasingly mainstreamed there.
In the United States, the issue is not that of lack of space but of control. Trump supporters feel that professional media belong to the liberals which translates into the Democrats. The result has been the rise of the alternative voices — the left-outs who feel that they need to say what they think and cannot find the right space. Hence, the clout of social media has risen but it exists in addition to the regular political space which has not shrunken. So, both feed each other and the chemistry between the two are obvious as well. It is a new and extra space, not a substitute space.
However, in Bangladesh, the situation is slightly different as the political space has shrunken due to several reasons. State political leaders have not been able to develop a participatory system which allows most to be included. Politics in Bangladesh follows a set pattern which means having access to all the power groups, plenty of money, muscle power, social network and link with a variety of network and family connections. On top of that, belonging to the right political party is important.
Conventional politics excludes most people
THE result of such an equation is that the business of politics has a high entry bar and most are not eligible to apply. On the other hand, the desire to speak out is high as well and it is here that the two have met and produced an alternative, the social media. The rise of this phenomenon is also linked to the shrinking of the formal political space. The greater the restrictions imposed on conventional politics, the greater the expansion of the social media space.
The authorities have responded with a variety of rules, laws and supervisions and the growth of digital security apparatus is high. This cuts across regimes and power clusters and just about everyone who is powerful and has a stake in the many power games. To many of them which includes the government and law enforcers, surveillance, apprehension and internment are where the focus is but the digital world is so wide and varied that it is not always easy to control it.
Can social media be controlled?
THE capacity to control the digital world is limited and this is not just in Bangladesh but even in an advanced country like the United States or China. The very nature of technology and its constant innovations make it an elusive prey to hunt down. Every government worth its name has chased the beast but phantoms are far too many in that world. And the problem does not look like it is about to go away.
Each country has some unique features and ours is the rise of information black market, partly explained as ‘fake news’. Any visit to YouTube will show that there are so many sites beaming anti-government propaganda that it is impossible to stop them as one springs up when one dies. With an ever-growing diaspora population, this is not about to go away. But many in Bangladesh turn to them because they feel they are not getting enough real news as censorship is at work.
That problem can be traced again to the political system that is at best limited to power groups, including the politicians, but not limited to them. When such a situation exists, the only political space which allows entry to those wishing to participate is social media. The authorities monitor it for several reasons but constricting a space challenge is one.
An alternative space but without power?
WHEN more people are on social media than activists of all the parties put together, the problem is that a new space is more active than the conventional one. No matter how much the monitoring is, the sheer size prevents control. But its influence is not on conventional politics which can be controlled but extra-conventional political activities like movements. That is why the authorities are anxious given the experience of the last one year.
The decision by the Election Commission that they shall monitor social media actually recognises the challenge that social media has become to mainstream politics. Media can influence political behaviour only this much but social media can go much beyond that and challenge the political structure that exists in the country. And as more turn to social media by default as they cannot engage in the conventional, the problem will not grow less.
In such circumstances, we are perhaps seeing a challenge to the political structure which has grown over time in Bangladesh. It is a small challenge, but it is a real one, nevertheless.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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