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Astroturfing The Truth

May 19, 2017

In this age of Social Media and easy access to information, flow of information  and light are vying for the throne of the highest speed.

Efforts have been greater than before to control free flow of information. Both the democratic and non-democratic regimes are keen to draw a lid on the source of information so that they can control or slow down the spread of information.

In the blink of an eye people get information and take their stand on an issue or on an ongoing debate.

Regimes irrespective of their creed want to bottle this genie and to employ it to shape public opinion.

The middle kingdom that witnessed the birth of newspaper is also the place where innovative techniques are being introduced to muzzle the freedom of expression.

A Chinese emperor first introduced newspaper in order to get information about what is going on in every nook and cranny of his vast empire. Better information means better decision.

The same China has recently introduced a 5-year-long cultural development and reform plan that aims to impose strict communist party control over internet.

This control of information often takes various forms. Recently Harvard University undertook a study on Chinese censorship program on Social Media.

Researchers Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret E Roberts in their study titled “ How The Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument” showed that Chinese government hires govt officials, academics , journalists to post fabricated social media post for molding public opinion in favor of the govt.

These paid internet commentators, known as 50 cent party members then reported to the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong in Jianxi province. Researchers analyzed leaked e-mails exchanged between 50 cent party members and their handlers at Zhanggong Internet propaganda office to make out the nature of this social media censorship.

Astroturfing

50 cent party members report to Zhanggong Internet Propaganda Office. Image Credit: Gary King, Jennifer Pan, Margaret E Roberts

The paper showed how 50 cent party members pursued a program of “reverse censorship” on Social Media by avoiding controversial issues and by distraction to kill a focused argument.

This distraction is at the heart of this astroturfing strategy that nipped in the bud  any collective action event that could lead to movement on the street.

So, the fake posts are part and parcel of changing a topic of discussion and thereby to shape the opinion of Social Media users.

This kind of distraction was also seen in Bangladesh. We witnessed in the February of 2013 how a doctored image of moon containing picture of a convicted war criminal caused mayhem across the country and took precious lives.

The perpetrators intended to set the fanatics against the govt by making them belief that the doctored image was a divine message from the God and it was a proof that the convicted criminal was innocent.

Moreover malicious posts on Social Media triggered communal attack  and made a heavy dent in the social fabric of the society.

In the pretext of fighting hate crime and fake posts govt introduced tighter regulations for the media.

In Bangladesh, another sort of media censorship is going on. Investors, Bankers, Economists and the press are left in the dark about vital economic data. Breaking the usual norm of relaying  inflation data monthly, Planning Minister disclosed it quarterly. This kind of revelation gives twisted data and sends confusing signal to the market. The move is a deliberate attempt to ,as some economists interpreted, project a-better-looking data to show the world that the economy is doing good.

Latest censorship measure aims the presspeople in particular. Govt ordered Foreign ministry to  instruct all its foreign missions to have a close eye on visiting Bangladeshi journalists and to report about their activities back home. Journalists viewed the move as a mean to put their patriotism under the scanner. This will drive a further wedge between the govt and the press.

Discussion is going on to drop the controversial section 57 of the ICT Act to calm down its critics.

On many occasions journalists fell prey to this section 57. Journalists were thrown into jails for digging the  past of influential people  and for carrying reports on corruption. Individuals were detained for posting critical comments on key political figures and for hurting “people’s sentiments”.

However, rumor says its content may be reintroduced in the new Cyber Security Act.

Brow beating of the press has frightened the media so much that they often prefer not to carry report on crucial issues.

Take for instance World Justice Project’s rule of law index. Hardly any media covered the story.

Bangladesh did terribly bad in this year’s rule of law index. This index is a testament that there is a gaping hole between what the government says and what it does.

Among the 113 countries surveyed, Bangladesh is ranked 103. This index is made up of eight indicators including absence of corruption, constraints on government powers and fundamental rights. Bangladesh scored pretty bad on all the indicators.

Bangladeshis here came to learn about this report through the column of a former bureaucrat. Ziauddin Choudhury who first brought the index to the fore in his Dhaka Tribune column claimed that this report was objective since  the report was  prepared delving into and analyzing a large sample of households.

What I construe from this hiding of information and increased censorship is that these tactics result in sluggish spread of information and provide government ample times to offer its version of story.

With the revolution of digital media, people have access to various sources of information.

So people’s view is not fixated on a particular explanation. Rather people get a panoramic view of an event. This in  turn made the efforts to mold public opinion pointless.

Stringent form of censorship and holding back information demonstrate weakness of a govt. A govt that is gradually losing its higher moral ground needs an iron hand in velvet glove. Is this the case with the current govt?

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