Social media is a key point for concern during elections across the world and the Election Commission of Bangladesh accepts that reality.
But the commission is yet to take any steps to curb rumours, misinformation and illegal promotions on social media platforms.
During the last election in 2018, the Election Commission tasked a team with 24-hour surveillance to prevent “rumours and misinformation” from spreading on social media.
But, almost two weeks into the election schedule, there is no visible move to prevent social media toxicity towards the voting.
Law-enforcing agencies work on the ground to stop conflict and violence surrounding the election but doing the same online is a different job entirely.
An inter-ministerial meeting recommended that the EC take steps about it. The EC also held a meeting with Facebook owner Meta in August but the discussion did not make headway.
Ashok Kumar Debnath, an additional secretary at the EC, said identifying “misleading content” is “quite complex”.
“The commission has yet to discuss and come to a decision about the matter. If it comes up in a future meeting, we’ll let you know about it,” he said.
The 12th parliamentary polls are set for Jan 7. The deadline to file nominations is Nov 30, sorting from Dec 1 to 4 and withdrawal can be done until Dec 17. After the election symbols are assigned on Dec 18, candidates will be able to launch election campaigns, which can run until Jan 5.
Many of those seeking candidacy have already put up posters and banners in advance. They were instructed to remove these on their own. But the EC knows no way to prevent promotion on social media networks.
Debnath said Meta had told them in a meeting in August it would begin working to block misleading promotions once the schedule was announced. Any content the EC would deem inappropriate for the election would be taken down immediately, he said.
Asked how the initiative was progressing, Debnath on Tuesday said: “Identifying misleading content on social media is quite complex. We have to inform them about misleading words over the election. On the other hand, those who create such content are quite adept at avoiding automated identification of those keywords.”
“Meta showed interest and sat with us by themselves. But we did not discuss anything with them recently. The Election Commission did not give any decision about this either.”
On Nov 1, an inter-ministerial meeting recommended that Facebook be shut on the day of the election to prevent rumours.
“We can’t take any steps about Meta. They will think about their users. Inter-ministerial meetings can propose anything and anyone can make recommendations. There was no decision to keep Facebook shut on the voting day,” said Debnath.
But other EC officials said an inter-ministerial meeting involving different agencies and law-enforcement could be held in the third week of December once the election campaigns are launched.
INTERNET SERVICES ON VOTING DAY
Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal said “disruption” of mobile phone services during the election creates suspicions among people. He hoped that the government would appreciate this fact.
During the CEC’s meeting with journalists about reporting policies on Mar 13, disruption of mobile network services and internet services was mentioned. Slowing the internet speed and disrupting mobile networks to delay the flow of information was discussed in the meeting.
“We have to be mindful that such actions don’t make people suspicious and compromise transparency,” the CEC said at that time.
Awal claimed that he was not aware of who causes mobile network issues during voting.
“The government should realise whether slow networks are being used as a tactic during elections. Anyone can say these things to the government -- but taking such measures during the election is probably not a good idea.”
MONITORING IN LAST ELECTION
On Dec 30, 2018, the then Election Commission held a meeting with mobile phone operators, BTRC and National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre. Later they also held discussions with the police, the detectives and other officials related to the matter.
With different agencies overseeing networks and internet activities, the EC formed a social media monitoring committee on Dec 19, a week after election campaigns were launched.
The supervision team included the director general of the national identity card registration section, and representatives from Police Headquarters, Special Branch, RAB, Bangladesh Computer Council, BTRC and National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre, along with a senior maintenance engineer of the Election Commission.
Helaluddin Ahmed, the EC secretary at that time, said BTRC was completely against shutting down social media platforms. But those who would spread rumours and misinformation would be monitored by NTMC, BTRC and Cyber Crime Unit of the law-enforcing agencies.
INFORMATION MINISTER SEES CHALLENGES
After a meeting with the Rumour Prevention Cell and Facts Checking Committee at the Secretariat on Tuesday, Information Minister Hasan Mahmud said anyone spreading rumours in the country is charged in a case. If the case is filed under the ICT Act, newspapers question the validity of the case, he added.
“Rumours are spread online or on social media platforms -- these are digital media. Spreading rumours through digital media will be dealt with under the [Digital Security Act]. But many people ask why the case would be filed -- that is a big challenge. Once arrests are made, it causes more controversies and the act which caused the arrest is left behind.”
He said a new law would be enacted to make registration of social media platforms mandatory.
In January, the minister ordered deputy commissioners to stay on guard about anyone spreading “rumours” through unregistered online portals, IPTV or YouTube channels.
After the meeting, he said: “There are many unregistered online portals, IPTV and YouTube channels at the district-level. Those who work there identify themselves as reporters. These platforms spread misinformation, rumours and confusion. This is a big challenge for us.”
On what steps could be taken against those spreading such misinformation, Hasan Mahmud said: “We can’t take steps against them on whim, there’s a process. The BTRC has to be informed. We need to remember that rumours spread fast but it takes time to act.”