The social wilderness

T Zami | Published: 17:36, Oct 26,2017


BUS commuters in Dhaka would often notice a curious pattern. People flag down buses all the time at different intersections, even casually beckoning the vehicles to stop and pick them up at the middle of the road. They would board the bus no matter how crammed it already is. However, once they are comfortably nestled in the seat, or hanging from the handrail, sandwiched and drenched in the sweat of fellow-travelers, some of them would cry and heckle the driver whenever the bus would stop to pick up more passengers from the road. This reveals the mentalité of a part of the populace that ‘we are not all in it together’. Some of us — the lucky ones — who have managed to be in the boat should do all we can to protect our privilege and those who couldn’t can drown. This is more a symptom of desperation than generalised misanthropy, and it offers a metaphor for the sort of Manichean, or Parallax, view of the world that characterises part of the public discussion in social media in Bangladesh. 

Bangla community blogging has created its own lore, mythology, and history: this article would just touch the surface of it rather than getting into the innards. The first popular community blog site somewhereinblog came into existence in December 2005. By the next year, blogging in the platform gained momentum. The originary political rupture happened there as early as February-March 2006, over comments made by a right-wing blogger advocating violence against ‘freethinkers and secularists’. Other issues that ignited controversies included the usual suspects, namely metaphysics and gender. However, the most important question that set the tone of Bangla blogsphere decisively was the trial of war criminals for their atrocities during the 1971 liberation war. The right-wing bloggers, at a loss to defend their subtle defense of the indefensible, were quick to push back with a reliable weapon, slapping blasphemy allegations on opponents. On May 2007, a section of bloggers coalesced against Jamaat-Shibir under the banner of ‘A-Team’. The diktats of samu admins — banning particular bloggers or removing posts — would trigger uproar at regular intervals. Eventually, the platform as it were exploded and gave rise to a number of other sites such as Sachalayatan, Amarblog, Istishon, and so forth.

social wilderness

The next big splash online was social media that dented the popularity of community blogs. Facebook captivated the middle class by 2009-10 and by 2012-13 it probably spread more or less among all social classes. In a 2017 survey, Dhaka was ranked second in the entire world in terms of number of active facebook users. Unlike the community blogging platforms that were centrally moderated, social media sites allowed more control by the individual user on their exposure to and creation of contents.

The continuous immersion in the lives of others as enabled by social media has created a culture of horizontal surveillance. Those who watch others may eventually learn more about their targets than the targets themselves, as human memory is limited and self-perception is biased.

Soon, the social media users were divided into the broadcasters and the whisperers. Social-media driven disintermediation meant that in expressing one’s views, one could bypass editorial control exercised by mainstream media. Manufacturing of consent became not only crowd-sourced, but it became a soiled and bloody affair. In the new online celebrity culture, one could garner an avid follower base by singing to the tune of the moment. In the social media echo chambers, the beliefs and prejudices of individuals would be reinforced by like-minded peers. In general, the social media is less amenable to rational debate than the blogs. Phatic communion — the likes, pokes, and casual interactions that keep the relations going — constitutes the larger share of interactions.

In eighteenth century France, when a rambunctious public sphere had emerged, Jean Jacques Rousseau, the best-selling enlightenment philosophe wondered:

‘I cannot comprehend how people can have the confidence to converse in large companies, where each word must pass in review before so many, and where it would be requisite to know their several characters and... histories to avoid saying what might give offence.’

One can only guess how Rousseau would feel had he lived today, in the age of social media where the ‘large company’ covers virtually everyone in the world. The secret of the confident opining in the social media is the feedback loop of peer responses that reinforces the opinions, preferably polarised and partly offensive. Giving offense to some is the prerequisite for getting approval of others. The most sensationalised, dumbed-down and sufficiently pabulated thoughtlets would get the highest level of audience attention. In any comment thread of posts of news pages, the trash usually floats to the top and trolls are fed incessantly. The most sensational and senseless comments show up at the top along with the most intelligent and thoughtful ones. One could entertain one’s worst prejudices and indulge in hatemongering with impunity.

On the other hand, isolated well-meaning activists could now find kindred souls for doing good together, be it organising for relief for Rana Plaza victims or floods. Online blogs and websites sprang up that helped create wider awareness about the history of the liberation war. In the whirlpool of online confrontations, the rabid, xenophobic, communal ideologies would be confronted with voices of reason.

The political activism of blogs and social media burst into the national scene around the question of the most critical issue of the country: the national liberation war. The International Crimes Tribunal was formed in 2009 by the newly-sworn in government elected with a vow to try war criminals (section 5 of party election manifesto). A number of leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islam, for their crimes during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, were tried. JeI sought to thwart the trial by propaganda and agitation. A pall of suspense hung over national politics. This was broken when on February 5, 2013, the verdict on one of the convicts was perceived as not proportionate to the crimes and indignant protests erupted in Shahbagh. The initial sparks quickly swelled into a massive popular wave. The demand for maximum punishment for heinous war crimes acted as the rallying signifier aggregating a range of demands of the emerging bloc of activists, many of them inspired — to various degrees of articulatedness — with a vision for a Bangladesh built on the fundamental values of the liberation war.

The detractors of the Shahbagh movement couldn’t beat the movement on its own ground, so it tried to shift the ground. After one week, the detractors of Shahbagh made a carefully-chosen move: a blogger-activist was slaughtered followed by a right-wing social media campaign labeling the victim as a blasphemer and atheist. The detractors thus tried to recast the pro- and anti-liberation war dichotomy into a second, contrived dichotomy, the theists vs atheists. The right wing media and intellectuals helped quickly shape the narrative of the new dichotomy. Hefajat-e-Islam, a platform based on the Qaumi Madrassa establishment of the country, threw in their weight, escalating the situation. The terms of the engagement were changed.

To be brief, a long and complicated struggle played out over 2013 and 2014, with simultaneous superposition of the war crimes trial, national and religious questions, and the political turf-war over the scheduled election. A number of militant groups took the opportunity of global and national political commotion to radicalise youths and carry out a series of targeted assassinations of bloggers, activists, foreigners, people from the minority community or sect, and anyone perceived to deviate from a narrowly defined orthodoxy-cum-orthopraxy. From January 2013 to July 2016, around 50 individuals were assassinated by covert militant groups, followed by the massacre in the Holey Artisan Bakery by a militant killer squad. Dissenters have been targeted not only in Bangladesh, but across South Asia. The social media landscape with its individuated paradigm of expression and activism probably facilitated the identification, surveillance and targeting of victims.

The assassinations were followed by an army of apologists directly or indirectly defending the killings by smearing the victims and justifying the crimes as an oppositional tactic. The apologists of violent repression of dissent practice a certain form of ‘kettle logic’, viz. they simultaneously argue along mutually inconsistent lines: (1) The victim was not attacked by them, rather the victim’s own camp attacked them under false flag to gain political mileage; (2) Even though the victim was not attacked by them, the victim’s comrades and allies should take note and start behaving themselves; and (3) Even if the victim was attacked by them, the victim was evil, and was thus a legitimate target of attack.

The role of social media in enabling and empowering activists for organisation, mobilisation, and expressiveness has been vaunted endlessly, exemplified in the Occupy Wall Street in the US, the Indignados in Spain, and the most celebrated case: the Arab Spring. Social media alone is not a sufficient assurance for the sustainability and long-term impact of a movement. Digital technology has equally enabled the governments to tighten the noose on citizens. The outbreak of Arab Spring in 2010-11 was painted as harbinger of the era of digitally-equipped citizen organisation and activism in the form of fluid civic movements, unmediated by parties, trade unions, or other civic institutions. Just as the ‘good governance’ ideology calls upon governments to become more transparent, thus enabling a sort of sous-veillance or citizen surveillance of the governments, contrariwise the governments and the prevailing establishment is also shifting on their feet and imposing a more expansive dataveillance on the citizens.

Several challenges beset the democratic potential of the new media. The online discourse is usually curved along erratic outbursts of popular outrages around issues in certain intervals. Issue fatigue and the quicksand of feed scrolls drown the possibility of a regularised follow-up and drilled-down investigation on events deserving genuine public concern. This is supplemented by issue-spinning. Many people began relying on social media to get news and opinion on issues of contemporary importance. Instead of mainstream media directly reaching the users, social media created a new layer of mediation where user network would reinforce or dilute the reach of a mainstream media platform. One’s peers could thus influence what media content could reach one. This set the ground for alternative media platforms that could bypass the control of the status quo over information dissemination. But this also enabled wide currency of ‘fake news’, that is, deliberately generated information content to mislead and manipulate users to serve a preset purpose. A section of the radicals from the left and right have welcomed the rise of alternative media. Some of them have even welcomed ‘alternative facts’ as a resounding vindication of transcending the mainstream media, oblivious to their corrosive effect.

The government banned Facebook for a few days in 2010 and for a while mulled restriction on blogging in 2011. In 2015, the government slapped temporary ban on social media anticipating unrest by Jamaat activists in the wake of a war crime verdict. The bans were subsequently lifted especially in view of the economic utility of internet platforms. While Bangladesh government applied the celebrated section 57 for criminalising a wide range of speech online, the act’s effectiveness in reining in misinformation, hate speech and abuse is not as clear.

Coming to the issue of misinformation and hate speech: in the wake of the Shahbagh movement, the right wing resorted to a tactical combination of propagation of morphed images in social media, use of pulpits of religious institutions to rally part of the local populace for agitation, and the use of mainstream media to strengthen popular opposition to the Shahbagh Movement.

The effectiveness of propaganda doesn’t only depend on the persuasiveness of the message itself. Direct or first-order propaganda on ‘the issues’ can only be effective when backed up by a second-order ad hominem discourse on ‘the individuals’ lumped together under certain categories. This constitutes a sort of ilm al-rijal, that focuses on identification and categorisation of individuals, and where needed, prosecutes smear campaign and character assassination of the opponents. Ethos and pathos is much more integral to propaganda than logos. This is exemplified by various private or public databases maintained by the right and the left which profile academics, activists, and politicians based on their public assertions.

The second issue with social media-centered activism is the amorphous nature of the movements. The popular waves that have been mobilised in cities across the world do not have a proper organisational framework. Agenda-setting, discussion and deliberation, and decision-making are often beyond the control of the ordinary participant in the movement. As Paolo Gerbaudo highlights in his research on social media activism, populism — whether progressive or regressive — promises to rally together atomised individuals into an unmediated unity. For that matter, all ideologies rely on individuation and interpellation of its prospective adherents. Whether it is nationalism, neo-traditionalism, or internationalism, the recruitment of a member requires an initial stage of individuation. This is followed by a lumping, a transition from the molecular to the molar. The lack of formal organisation of the movement also means that the leadership of the movement could be appropriated by other actors, laterally penetrated by outsiders, and even manipulated. Instead of promoting direct democracy, some of the social media-enabled popular movements around the world turned into small aristocracies lording over amorphous democratic masses — a situation which sets the ground for populism. The Anna Hazare movement was denounced by the left-liberal camp in India for its attempt to bypass the institutional procedure to force its demand. In the case of Shahbagh movement, however, the close participation of time-tested leftist organisations ensured that there was a fairly-organised base and a broad sense of direction, although under immense political pressure, the movement eventually split into factions.  

Thirdly, organisations tap into the social media to pursue their goals. Money and muscle often distort the functioning of communicative rationality. Hiding under the persona of individual activists or social media users, armies of propagandists are mobilised by political parties, state agencies, social and religious organisations, corporations, and so on. To take an example from India: the Bharatiya Janata Party has an IT cells with around 15,000 operatives working across India. In 2017, Indian National Congress tried to revamp their social media team to beat BJP at its own game. The trolling in today’s social media is much more vicious than 19th century yellow journalism or early 20th century muckrakers. The Indian scene is slightly different from Bangladesh as the former has a heavier tilt towards twitter and whatsapp, notorious for a substantially higher trolling and misinformation content than facebook.

The teeming social media scene collapses institutional partitions and social roles. Politicians, socio-economic elites, or religious gurus have been able to use their bully pulpits to promote false or harmful ideas even in the heyday of mainstream media, but the rise of social media accelerated the impact of such messages with the rise in anti-intellectualism. It may not be apparent to a rank populist how institutional procedures and partitions may be important for a democratic system, because their rancor is directed against those involved in production of mainstream discourse in a society under the aegis of institutions: journalists, experts, elites, and so on. Yet, collapse of distinct social and institutional roles can equate truths to falsehood and power to authority.

Online activists need to have a more meaningful strategy for organisation rather than relying on amorphous networks. The linkage between the popular movements and the prevailing institutions, stakeholders, and knowledge needs to be thought through much more seriously.


T Zami is an author and researcher.

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