Bangladesh polls body asks Facebook’s parent to remove ‘disinformation’ in election run-up

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh polls body asks Facebook’s parent to remove ‘disinformation’ in election run-up A Bangladeshi reads a report about Facebook and other social media networks on his mobile phone in Dhaka, Dec. 20, 2018.
AP file photo

UPDATED at 11:22 a.m. EDT on 2023-08-04

Bangladesh’s Election Commission met with representatives of Facebook’s parent company Thursday to seek the social media giant’s support in removing political posts deemed as disinformation during the run-up to national polls, officials said.

The move by the electoral body comes as the ruling Awami League faces criticism at home and from abroad for having already shrunk the space for free speech and a free press in the South Asian nation. The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has been in power since 2009, in recent years has used an online security law to go after and charge journalists and her critics.

A three-member team representing Meta, Facebook’s parent company, met with three officials led by Ashok Kumar Debnath, an additional secretary of the election commission secretariat. The representatives from Meta were led by Ruzan Sarwar, the company’s head of public policy for Bangladesh.

“The discussion was mainly focused on the disinformation campaigns in Facebook and the ways to counter it,” Debnath told reporters after the meeting in Dhaka, adding that Meta had committed to delete and block posts over “violations such as hate speech and communalism.”

Facebook is one of the most popular platforms that Bangladeshis turn to for news and information. But parties from both sides of the political divide are known for disseminating content via social media that can be false or factually dubious.

Debnath said Meta, with the help of the Election Commission, would start to remove the “objectionable content” from Facebook after the election schedule is announced. The general election is expected to be held in December or January.

“We will inform Meta about items that we would consider negative and they are to remove them,” Debnath said. “Only objectionable posts and content related to the elections would be detected.”

BenarNews reached out to Meta for information about the meeting in Dhaka.

“We have a consistent approach to protecting election integrity on our platforms, and we maintain a constructive dialogue and regular communication with our partners from government, civic groups and NGOs to share our efforts in supporting election integrity, this includes our global policies around misinformation, hate speech, and harmful content,” a Meta spokesperson said via email in response.

In a previous Facebook post disseminated, the company promised to empower voters, saying, “We are focused on providing reliable election information while combating misinformation across languages.”

US: ‘We do not play favorites’

Thursday’s talks with Meta occurred on the same day that Peter Haas, the American ambassador to Bangladesh, called for fair elections after meeting with leaders of the Awami League in Dhaka, local media reported.

“We believe everyone has a role to play, making sure that elections are free, fair and peaceful,” he told reporters, according to the Dhaka Tribune. “And each has to play their role and be allowed to play their role in order to have a free, fair and peaceful election.”

Asked if Washington was aligned with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Haas responded, “It’s a weird question when I’m sitting at the Awami League headquarters. No, we meet with all political parties. We do not play favorites.”

Activists with the opposition BNP party clash with police along a main arterial road during an anti-government protest in Dhaka, July 29, 2023. [BenarNews]

In the build-up to the election, the government is also facing intensifying mass protests against the Awami League by BNP supporters.

On July 28, tens of thousands of BNP faithful rallied in Dhaka for an anti-government rally.

Thousands of Awami League supporters attended a rally that same day to counter the opposition.

On Saturday, the climate turned violent during a series of sit-ins staged by the BNP at exit points along Dhaka’s main arterial roads.

Police fired water cannons and rubber bullets as they clashed with stone-throwing protesters who also carried sticks, reports said.

On Monday in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller responded to a question about reports of the political violence in Bangladesh.

“[W]e encourage the Government of Bangladesh to investigate reports of violence thoroughly, transparently and impartially, and to hold the perpetrators of violence to account,” Miller said.

“And I will say finally that free and fair elections depend on the commitment of everyone – voters, political parties, youth wings and police – and cannot take place in an environment with political violence.”

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch challenged Bangladesh police who “indiscriminately fired rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons, and beat opposition party supporters with batons during protests” on July 29.

In a statement, the New York-based human rights advocacy group noted that authorities had arrested more than 800 BNP leaders and activists “in what appears to be a systematic effort to target and detain political opponents.”

Disinformation campaigns

Tanvir Hasan Zoha, a cyber security and social media analyst, questioned whether Meta would delete or remove every item identified as objectionable by the Election Commission.

“Meta has no office in Bangladesh while they have appointed some staff for Bangladesh,” Zoha told BenarNews.

“No agency in Bangladesh can remove any content from Facebook or YouTube,” he said, adding that authorities would have to contact the company and request items be removed.

“Meta has a policy in this regard. They would examine every single piece of content in line with their policy before deleting or blocking,” Zoha said.

Political analyst Nizam Uddin Ahmed said he expected supporters of both the Awami League and BNP to launch social media campaigns against each other as the general election approaches.

“The election commission has no capacity to stop the disinformation campaigns in social media. They have every reason to be worried about it – one social media post can destroy the atmosphere for peaceful elections,” he told BenarNews.

Bangladesh has had a history of fake items showing up on social media.

One fake item showed Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, BNP’s senior joint secretary general, reading out a press statement calling Rahman the mastermind behind an August 2004 grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina. The video showed Rizvi demand exemplary punishment for Tarique Rahman – the party’s acting chairman and son of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia – for the attack.

A fake item against the Awami League claimed that Hasina’s son, Sajib Wazed Joy, was forced to leave his home in the United States and return to Dhaka.

According to Md. Abdullah, president of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), the Election Commission is concerned that social media posts would reveal bad deeds by government officials.

“Removing disinformation, hate speech, fake news and other bad items is desirable. But the Election Commission may also identify as objectionable content that may harm the interest of some specific party of their choice,” Abdullah told BenarNews.

“People visit social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube more than the mainstream media sites because the mainstream media are completely under the control of the government,” he said. “But the authorities in Bangladesh cannot control the social media where they see some people who speak the truth about the country.”

This report has been updated to include a new statement from Meta.


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