Several websites that spread fake content and masquerade as online portals of genuine news organizations have cropped up in Bangladesh in the past few days, alarming media executives who say these could mislead voters ahead of next month’s general election.
Imposter versions of popular news sites such as the Bengali language service of BBC News and the Bangladeshi daily newspaper Prothom Alo have appeared online since Friday.
Some bear uncanny resemblances to the real sites, but contain discrepancies such as fictitious headlines replacing genuine ones or spelling mistakes in the websites’ addresses that give them away, according to news industry insiders.
The hackers who created the clones of real news sites have broken the law, the nation’s information and telecommunications minister told BenarNews on Monday.
“I have come to know about it. I have also visited some fake websites. No doubt, this is a crime,” Minister Mustafa Jabbar said.
“The victims can seek remedy from the court under the Intellectual Property Rights Act and the Digital Security Act.”
Dhaka Tribune, a sister company of the Bangla Tribune, said in an editorial that most of the “fake news” promoted on the doctored websites was directed “sharply” against the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
“With elections fast approaching, there is genuine hope among Bangladeshis that this time there will be no boycotts and that we will all be able to vote in a truly participatory election,” the Tribune editorial said. “It is for this reason that recent reports of fake news websites infiltrating into our cyberspace are particularly concerning.”
The editorial was referring to BNP’s boycott of the last general election, in 2014, but the party has announced it will contest the next national polls coming up on Dec. 30.
The false news websites used domain names strikingly similar to the addresses of the popular news portals, copying mastheads and most of the portals’ contents. A false version of the Bangla Tribune, seen by BenarNews editors from Washington and Dhaka, had the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) “banglatriibune.com” misspelled with an extra “i”.
“The danger here is two-fold: The first is that by doing so they will give their fake news the imprimatur of credibility and the second is that, as people learn to distrust their news, they will start to distrust news from the legitimate sites they are masquerading as,” the Tribune editorial said, underscoring that attempts to clone legitimate sites could lead to a loss of confidence in the nation’s press.
BDFactCheck.com, the first Bangla-language website created to spot fake news, was among the sites attacked by hackers, said its creator and CEO, Zahed Arman.
With rumors increasing and circulating as the campaign season begins to heat up, “fake news creators may create confusion among the voters,” he told Benar.
The daily Prothom Alo, in a report on Saturday, said a screenshot of its fake newspaper front page went viral on social media.
“The spelling of the fake website is similar to that of ours, with a slight difference,” it said.
Prothom Alo’s website was also cloned with a misspelled web address: prothomaalo.com.
Over the weekend, BBC Bangla also reported that its portal had been cloned by unknown individuals or entities.
“Our website is bbcbangla.com. They only added a hyphen to our URL to clone the site,” it said.
Journalists and media analysts have expressed concern over the false sites.
Ali R. Razi, an assistant journalism professor at Chittagong University, warned that false news sites passing off as real ones could proliferate in the run-up to the polls.
“The country may face serious danger any time,” Razi told BenarNews. “Vested quarters may create anarchy by circulating false stories ahead of the election.”
‘We can block them’
Jabbar, the information and telecommunications minister, said affected parties should file criminal complaints.
“We are a must-go to for action voluntarily, if anything happens that would hamper national security. But we have no opportunity to try anybody if allegations are not filed,” he said.
“If the court orders it, we can block the false websites,” he said, suggesting that newspapers and online news portals that have victimized could seek remedy under Bangladesh’s controversial Digital Security Act.
“You will not get any easy remedy if a case is not filed under the Digital Security Act or under the Intellectual Property Rights Act,” he told BenarNews.
“The journalists were criticizing me for passing the law in the parliament,” he said, “now they should understand how helpless they can be in the absence of the law.”