The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the effects of misinformation, disinformation and hate speech and highlighted the need for new tools and strategies to counter these phenomena, particularly on social media. In Bangladesh, where disinformation has sparked religious and communal violence recently, there are growing concerns that mis- and disinformation and hate speech are fueling violence and spreading inaccurate and dangerous information about the new coronavirus.
In this context, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and local partner, Dhaka University’s Microgovernance Research Initiative, convened a webinar series, Leading Through COVID-19: How Is Bangladesh Confronting the Pandemic?, to equip youth with the knowledge and leadership skills they need to be agents of change during the crisis. Bangladeshi and international experts shared knowledge on democracy, civil society, gender and other issues and best practices for developing strong youth and civil society networks. One hundred and fifty students from 47 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts have taken part in the online webinars, some of which have also been streamed over Facebook Live.
In the first webinar, IFES Regional Director for Asia-Pacific Vasu Mohan spoke on “Promoting Social Cohesion and Inclusion on Social Media” and addressed the “infodemic” – a “tsunami of information” that makes it difficult to differentiate good information from mis- and disinformation, rumors and fake news. Mohan emphasized the critical role of youth and civil society in countering disinformation and hate speech.
The webinar series targets the Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE) network and youth promise fellows. SAVE is a network of more than 700 students at nine universities around Bangladesh working to build peaceful and democratic campuses. The 32 fellows will conduct research and projects on the socio-economic and second-order effects of the COVID-19 crisis and create positive messaging to counter misinformation.
As IFES has noted in other publications on the subject, misinformation and hate speech “create a range of electoral integrity challenges for democracies.” In Bangladesh, there have been documented instances of politically, religiously and ethnically motivated fake news and disinformation leading to violent protests, destruction of property and even death and injury. More recently, students in the SAVE network in Bangladesh reported incidents of stigmatization, hate speech and violence as a result of misinformation related to COVID-19.
"This workshop motivated me to produce a video message to counter hate speech. ... Those who represent Bangladesh can never deliver towards others on the basis of gender, age, occupation, ethnicity, religion, political belief, disability and so on. Because the Bangladesh identity always says no to hate speech. Instead it promotes bonds of harmony." – A student participant
Students learned to distinguish between misinformation, which is mistakes or jokes that are taken seriously; disinformation, which is fabricated or deliberately manipulated to deceive people; and hate speech, which is deliberately discriminatory and targets people based on their race, ethnicity, gender, national origin or other factors. Mohan shared strategies and best practices from IFES’ work on countering mis- and disinformation and hate speech in India, where IFES has been partnering with Facebook to promote social cohesion and inclusion. Students learned a four-step process to recognize, research, analyze and counter mis- and disinformation and eight research-based strategies for countering disinformation and hate speech. One student in the workshop said, “This workshop motivated me to produce a video message to counter hate speech. ... Those who represent Bangladesh can never deliver towards others on the basis of gender, age, occupation, ethnicity, religion, political belief, disability and so on. Because the Bangladesh identity always says no to hate speech. Instead it promotes bonds of harmony.”
Students learned about trusted sources of information, such as the World Health Organization and its myth-busting work on COVID-19. Mohan noted that civil society must support the good efforts of governments and hold government accountable when necessary. In the current crisis, civil society and subnational governments have stepped in when national governments have been unable or unwilling to respond. Mohan mentioned that in many countries, political leaders have at times given inaccurate and conflicting information on the COVID-19 pandemic. In these situations, Mohan emphasized the role of youth to seek and share accurate information. “Young leaders like you actually make the difference,” Mohan told students, noting that governments need to empower young people to make changes.
Mohan reminded the students that their work needs to be grounded in human rights. He also spoke about the importance of empathy and humanization and not further marginalizing or stigmatizing people based on their lack of access to credible information. Students should be cautious in the information they share online, not just to avoid sharing misinformation, but to avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes. Mohan said: “While the virus doesn’t discriminate, preexisting social discrimination makes some people more susceptible than others,” and may amplify the effects of the crisis.
IFES’ work in Bangladesh is focused on mitigating conflict and engaging citizens. The Leading Through COVID-19: How Is Bangladesh Confronting the Pandemic? webinar series is one of several interventions IFES is undertaking in Bangladesh to equip students with skills and tools to build democracy and reduce conflict. The webinar series will continue through the end of May, providing important education and networking opportunities to students whose universities are currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.