Antisocial media

Courier Briefing
Thursday, November 16th, 2017


 

The disturbing pattern to outbreaks of communal violence in recent times.

 

The recent violence sparked over a religiously-inappropriate picture demeaning Prophet Muhammad at Rangpur Sadar upazila’s Thakurbari village just happens to be the latest in the string of communal violences since the Ramu riots in 2012, that affected the Buddhist community, and Nasirnagar, Brahmanbaria last year, where Hindus again were the victim.

 

The template seems to be laid out in a rather uniform way – a member of the religious minority is tagged in a picture on Facebook which demeans Islam and its components, an instigator who happens to be in the friend list of that individual shows the sacrilegious picture all across the village/town and all hell breaks loose.

 

Hundreds are later identified by law enforcement officials, arrested and await trials which go on for a substantial period of time. Both the tagged person and the instigator are arrested, but it turns out that the minority individual was merely tagged in that picture and was not the primary uploader, which was invariably uploaded months back, hence, leaving the authorities with the conclusion that there was no way he could have instigated such riots.

 

The modus operandi has been evident over the past decade, with religious zealots carrying out synchronised attacks on the basis of a mere post on social media.

 

What really happened?

 

The riots in Rangpur bear similar marks, as a man was killed and 20 people, including four policemen, were injured in a clash between law enforcers and locals on November 10, ever since a group of zealots came to know about the defamatory picture of Prophet Muhammad, which was posted on the Facebook profile of one Titu Chandra, a Thakurbari resident. Over the issue, several hundred people gathered at Pagla Pirer Bazar, adjacent to Thakurbari village, after Juma prayers and started chanting slogans demanding immediate arrest of Titu Chandra, our sister newsagency UNB reported. Later, around 8,000 people from nearby villages thronged the bazaar and marched towards Thakurbari village, a Hindu-dominated village.

 

Reaching the village, the angry people vandalised and torched 8-10 houses of the Hindu community, the additional SP said. On information, police rushed in, charged baton, fired rubber bullets and lobbed teargas canisters to disperse the agitating people, leaving six people injured with bullets.

 

Additional superintendent of police (Circle A) Saifur Rahman said that one of those injured – Hasan – died while being moved to Rangpur Medical College Hospital. Later, the angry mob blocked Rangpur-Syedpur road and vandalised several moving vehicles.

 

Who is Titu Chandra?

 

After much investigation and analysis by the media, it was later found out that the Facebook account resembling Titu Chandra Roy is named ‘MD Titu’. The ‘MD Titu’ account was opened on Facebook just two months back in September this year, although he had managed to make 288 friends by this time.

 

It appears whoever opened the account has only a handful of Titu’s photos and posted them tirelessly, almost every day. Several photos of people appearing to be relatives of friends of ‘MD Titu’ were also posted. That ‘MD Titu’ is a Hindu youth has also been established through the abundance of photos of Hindu deities on his wall. This ‘MD Titu’ appears to have a habit of sharing photos of young girls and porn content.

 

The controversial post first appeared on the timeline of ‘MD Titu’ on October 19. It was a screenshot showing a ‘blasphemous’ post from another Facebook ID on the wall of a Facebook group, named ‘Bangladeshi Teenagers.’ The controversial screenshot later started appearing in the photo galleries that were being published by ‘MD Titu’ almost every day. It appears even after receiving threats over the screenshot, ‘MD Titu’ was undaunted and continued posting the screenshot several times in a day.

 

Meanwhile, family members of Titu Roy brushed aside any possibility of him operating a Facebook account, saying he is illiterate.

 

Titu’s younger brother Bipul Chandra told reporters that Titu took loans from different NGOs and failed to repay the money. He fled from the area seven years ago over that issue. He never returned home after that. He took his wife and children to Dhaka around five years ago.

 

Titu and his wife now work at a garment factory in Narayanganj’s Fatullah, he added. “We had heard that a Facebook ID named after Titu spread rumours and caused all the tension here. But my brother cannot even read a word. How can he run a Facebook ID? We think someone else opened an ID and named it after Titu,” Bipul said.

 

Ramu Riots

 

Muslim protesters had attacked Buddhist villages in Ramu, Ukhia, Teknaf and some other parts of Cox’s Bazar after a photo of a burnt Quran showed up in the profile of one Uttam Barua, a Buddhist, who was merely tagged in the photo and not the actual uploader. Witnesses said angry crowds set fire to homes and temples in the Cox’s Bazar district, forcing families to flee. Buddhists living in the area said that their possessions were stolen before their homes were destroyed. Hundreds of protesters are said to have rampaged through Buddhist neighbourhoods, smashing statues, burning down monasteries and attacking houses.

 

Police had later arrested one Md Abdul Moktadir Arif, 18, who allegedly sowed the seed of communal riot at Cox’s Bazaar’s Ramu by showing locals the Facebook profile of the Buddhist youth who allegedly “uploaded a photo denigrating Islam”.

 

According to the police official, Arif visited the Facebook profile of the Buddhist youth, Uttam Barua, from a cell phone shop at Ramu Bazaar in the afternoon of Sep 29. He called people nearby to show the photograph Barua had allegedly uploaded in his profile and had it downloaded. The news saw a crowd of over 500 people gather at the bazaar by night and a rally followed. It turned violent and Buddhist villages in Ramu were vandalised, looted and set ablaze, without sparing even the worshipping places late Sep 29 night. It continued for almost five hours. The next day the riot spread to Teknaf, Ukhia and Chittagong’s Patia over the same incident.

 

Nasirnagar saga

 

On October 30 last year, a mob of radical Islamists in Brahmanbaria’s Nasirnagar upazila beat Rasraj Dash mercilessly and handed him over to police, alleging that he posted a morphed image of Kaba on the Facebook.

 

The attackers also vandalised and looted his house, and destroyed two Puja pavilions at Haripur village. The controversial Facebook photo also sparked a series of communal attacks on the Hindu minority of the area. At least 17 temples and Puja pavilions, and over 58 houses were vandalised and looted by a mob of about 3,000 people following a rally, organised by radical Islamist groups Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and Hefazat-e-Islam.

 

There were announcements from local mosques the previous day – a trend seen many times in recent years before attacks on temples and houses of Hindus and the Buddhists across the country. Later, more houses were vandalised and torched in the area. Police investigation later found out that the morphed photo posted from Rasraj’s Facebook account was used by the masterminds of the attacks to spread communal hatred.

 

As the news of the Facebook post spread, violence spilled over to the neighbouring Habiganj district where a Hindu temple in Madhabpur bus stand area came under attack. There, the attackers vandalised a Kali idol when devotees were worshipping at the temple for Diwali. On information, local UP Chairman Ali Ahmed rushed to the spot and called the police.

 

Earlier in the morning, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, an Islamic group, held a rally protesting the Facebook post in Sadar Upazila, a quarter kilometre from where the attack happened.

 

Some locals blamed the protesters for the attack, which the rally organisers denied. They blamed some “criminals” from Nurpur village for the incident. “A group of Hefajat-e Islam men attacked the Hindu community and vandalised their homes and temples when we were holding a peaceful rally. Islam is a peaceful religion. It never supports any clash. We demand trial of the attackers,” said Riazul Karim, convener of Nasirnagar unit of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. Fazlul Karim Kasemi, joint secretary general of Hefajat-e Islam’s Dhaka city unit, described the allegation as completely false and baseless.

 

A trusty playbook

 

On November 14 at a press briefing after visiting Thakurbari, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said the law enforcers have already arrested the mastermind of Rangpur arson attack, “whose Facebook post triggered the agitation as it hurt the Muslims’ religious sentiment”.

 

“The mastermind, Titu, was held from Nilphamari,” the minister said, adding that the police carried out their duties as they were supposed to do, and those responsible for the agitation, no matter who they are, will be brought to justice. “Bangabandhu’s Bangladesh is a non-communal country and no one can conspire here”.

 

Earlier on November 11, police filed a case against more than 2,000 people over the clash and detained 36 people from Gangachhara and Kotwali areas on the night of November 10 in this connection.

 

The problem would seem to be a regional one. The first large-scale Hindu-Muslim riot since time immemorial sparked off in Kolkata’s Basirhat sub-division, where an explicit cartoon of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) triggered communal troubles last July, which lasted up to a week, resulting in a death and scores other injured.

 

On June 30, a screenshot started to circulate around the Basirhat subdivision via WhatsApp. It showed the Facebook timeline of a teenager from Magurkhali who had allegedly shared an explicit cartoon of the prophet.

 

Matters reached a head by 7pm on July 2, when a group of Muslims showed up at the house of the boy who had allegedly shared the cartoon. The boy lived with his uncle. The group demanded to see the boy who, his uncle pleaded, was not at home, a neighbour who did not want to be named said.

 

Soon after, a large crowd of Muslims, numbering between 2,000 and 3,000 gathered at the school grounds of Rudrapur, a market town adjacent to Magurkhali. It was here that the local administration first woke up to the issue. Top police officials, as well as the head of Baduria’s civic body, rushed to calm the crowd. In an attempt to keep the peace, a promise was made to the mob: the boy would be arrested within 24 hours. A back and forth skirmish followed for the next few days, which resulted in several business institutions vandalised, homes looted and relationships shattered.

 

The West Bengal Police lived up to its promise: the teenager was arrested sometime late at night. But the mob had been emboldened. With the police bowing to their demands, the mob turned on them the next day in a show of power. In Baduria town on July 3, a mob attacked the police station, burning vehicles and blocking major roads and rail lines. By that evening, the boy’s house in Magurkhali—now empty—was attacked and an attempt made to set it on fire.

 

Yet while the communal violence bit may distinguish troubles with social media in this neck of the woods, there is also no doubt the world as a whole is having difficulty grappling with certain changes set in motion with the advent, followed by the rapidly growing prominence of social media in our lives. Amid allegations of Russians using social media to swing the US election in 2016, and internet trolls growing beyond an annoyance to actually fuelling hatred that spills over into ‘real life’, there is some serious contemplation going on in the West as well, as to how to deal with this new mode of communication.

 

Connected we fall?

 

The playbook seems to have become clear, and clearly some parties are adept at playing it. Such is the power of social media that an unverified post can spark healthy interactions, or even the most sinister of retributions. The alienation almost endemic to human society in the 21st century, has found fertile ground on social media with its illusion of virtual connections. Yet while it may actually lend ease of interaction with one’s immediate as well as wider communities, we are also increasingly witnessing the danger of attaching too much importance to what we may encounter in that space. The vast populations of the Indian subcontinent appear to be particularly vulnerable.

 

While recognising that underlying tensions must exist for them to be played up on social media, the sheer consistency in the pattern to the violence in recent years clearly reflects – a little bit of friendship on social media in this part of the world, can be a dangerous thing.

 

Go Digital, Be Social

 

According to Hootsuite’s ‘Digital in 2017 Global Overview’, with 16 million active Facebook users, Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka has got the third largest number of active users on Facebook among global cities. That number is 0.9 percent of the total monthly active users of the social networking site across the globe.

 

Bangkok topped the list with 30 million active Facebook users while Mexico City second.

 

The United States has been ranked country having 214,000,000 users which is 11 percent of the total, and India is second with 191,000,000 users which is 10 percent of total Facebook users. Bangladesh however ranked in the top 10 for highest growth in social media users in 2016, as well as for highest growth in use of social media through mobile phones.

 

The report shows that more than half of the world’s population now uses the internet, while almost two-thirds now has a mobile phone, says the report. Nearly 37 percent of the world’s population, some 2.8 billion people, are active social media users.

 

Hootsuite is a platform for managing social media, created by Ryan Holmes in 2008. The organisation deals with the latest essential internet, social media and mobile states from around the world.

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