Living In A Propaganda State

Is it easy to persuade people to do things you want them to do? Well it’s not at all that easy but you may be confused once you find yourself in disarray of events taking place in Bangladesh over the last couple of months. Few thoughts on what’s going on around me were bubbling for long. I am fascinated after I was exposed to flurry of propaganda unleashed by arguing parties and people believing in them.

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One of the facebook poster demanding capital punishment of crimes against humanity during the Liberation War of 1971.

I can see how media – both national and international – become participants of events, trying to be catalyst or performing a role of observer. I can see people around me on their own platforms have become vocal against discord but resting their thoughts in the same discord again and over again. Enough surrealism!

Bangladesh can be called a state of propaganda now following events in the last one week alone. Face of a person has been seen on moon and he is religious – this was propagated and the result was death of over 20 people! It seems we live in the age of darkness, and the reality is that such propaganda is powerful enough to sway the tide.

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Demonstrators at Shahbag who lit hundreds and thousands of candle light sticks demanding capital punishment for war crimes. Demonstrators say since the Bangladesh government had shut down youtube, this moment was unable to attract international attention it deserved.

If you do not run your propaganda, your opponent’s propaganda will escalate the situation in their favour. All the parties involved in the game are doing the same. Some of them are very smart. The one which needs to be smartest appeared to be the dumbest. However, signals are yet to be clear which path they will take next. It is their game of power for power. In this game, people and parties will push you towards other’s box if you do not sing their songs.

This is for the first time that a movement has formed in Bangladesh which has been initiated with a call to protest from online platforms against a verdict in the Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal. Even many of the organisers told me that they could not imagine that the movement would reach that far when it is really far from where it had originated.  In the beginning, there were struggle for taking control as student political parties joined hands. This movement at Shahbag by bloggers and online activists is, what the organisers say, nothing but to demand capital punishment of those who were involved in crimes against humanity during the 1971 war of independence.

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Mr. Delwar Hossain Saidee’s supporters spread this photo through facebook groups where he is seen to offer prayer inside jail.

However, the people so far convicted (except one) belong to a political party – Jamaat-e-Islami – which opposed the trial and demand release of its leaders. The local media was divided since the beginning of the movement as per their political divide. The movement has witnessed a series of organised propaganda which also created problem for the government as well.

Few examples may be helpful. Firstly, there was information campaign against the movement at Shahbag calling it a movement by atheist. Restless campaign swayed public opinion after the gruesome killing of a blogger – Ahmed Rajib Hayder who used to write with pen name ‘Thaba Baba’, a highly-googled pair of word of recent time now synonymous to atheism. Campaigners were successful in making a large portion of the country convinced that the Shahbag movement was orchestrated by atheists like Rajib who have criticised the Prophet of Islam. Although the protestors tried their hard to counter that campaign, their efforts went in vein and at one point, some of the Islamist political parties got engaged. Although these newly-involved islamists have difference of opinion with Jamaat-e-Islami, they were ignited with Jihadi spirit to face the ‘atheists of Shahbag’. They were about to occupy Shahbag but the police foiled their first attempt. Before they could go for a second attempt, a verdict in the International Crimes Tribunal convicting an accused changed the scenario and saved the skin of many. Branding Shahbag movement as a ‘dancing party by atheists’ was very successful to some extent!

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The opponents of Jamaat-e-Islami party has been spreading this sort of posters.

Secondly, sighting of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a convicted by the tribunal on crimes against humanity, on moon was another successful campaign which actually favoured those who opposed the Tribunal and the trial. It had successfully incited hundreds of people of rural Bangladesh and caused deaths of over 20 people on a single day of violence. Despite many national media were supporting the movement of Shahbag, neither the protestors of Shahbag nor even the government were successful in countering such information campaign.

Those who are trying to portray that the Shahbag movement is nothing but atheist’s movement and doing all anti-islamic things, the latest twist is that the ongoing fight in Bangladesh is actually fight between secular and islamists. This is the third point I would like to mention before I end. Many people have fallen into this campaign and its parents will be happy to see its success as many of the protestors and supporters are also calling it a fight between islamists and secular forces. An Islamist may also demand capital punishment of the accused in crimes against humanity. It will ultimately sway the debate and that’s what the opponent of Shahbag movement would like to see. The protestors are all singing patriotic songs, beginning programmes with recitation from holy books of different religions and so on and there are secular spirit as well. I guess the last one in a spell of campaign is the one which will be critical. Moreover, the minority button has been pushed.

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Death toll reached around a hundred and many on-duty cops also shed their blood.

Although the protestors of Shahbag movement were successful in spreading their movement in and outside the country, they were outsmarted by their opponents in terms of propaganda on number of occasions. There are several reasons for that. People are also panicked and as the Daily Prothol Alo newspaper states that 40 out of 64 district administrations asked for security. In one of my previous pieces here, I wrote how the government of Bangladesh was lagging behind in reaching the outer world and persuade the West in favour of the war crimes trial. Its opponents were successful in making the tribunal controversial and many human rights groups and international media are still critical of the government. Shahbag movement had been helpful for the government on some points and some of the talking heads of local tv channels believe the movement had buried the possibility of negotiation between the government parties and Jamaat-e-Islami.

The propaganda war did not start with the recent movement. Rather it has been continued for long and with the Shahbag movement, it reached a new height. There are many lessons to learn from these information campaigns of the parties involved.

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E-diplomacy

This is how new social networking sites are changing the reach of the statesmen of our time!

The diplomatic world is considered to be one of protocol and discretion, yet an increasing number of foreign policy officials and diplomats are conducting their business in the most public way possible, on Twitter.

On the morning that Ratko Mladic appeared before the UN war crimes tribunal, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague took to Twitter to issue the kind of diplomatic broadside of which his predecessor, Viscount Palmerston, would have been proud.

“Syrian leaders should reflect on the sight of Mladic in the dock today – reach of international justice is long.”

Palmerston, the 19th Century British statesman who served both as foreign secretary and prime minister, was famed for his gunboat diplomacy. Hague, a prolific tweeter, was practising a 21st Century variant: e-diplomacy.

Like Hague, Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, is also fluent in this new diplomatic tongue. During the government crackdown on demonstrations in Bahrain last year, he took to the Twittersphere to berate his Bahraini counterpart: “@khalidalkhalifa Trying to get in touch with you on an issue”

With its 140-character limit, Twitter hardly lends itself to diplomatic nuance. But its abbreviated form, in harness with its hashtag hieroglyphics, can also make it powerfully direct.

The popular social media site is just one of the online tools that governments are increasingly using to extend their spheres of internet influence. The web can help deliver consular advice, explain policy, and reach and engage with new audiences. It can also be used to issue admonishments and warnings and, on occasions, help solve problems.

The acknowledged leader in this field is the US State Department, which now boasts more than 150 full-time social media employees working across 25 different offices. It uses familiar sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, as well as local equivalents, such as VKontakte in Russia. Ambassadors and other State Department employees are encouraged to establish an online presence.

A recent training session at the headquarters in Foggy Bottom even saw a classroom full of diplomats being schooled in social media techniques by a 20-something intern. The advice: “Go ahead and give it a go.” Already more than 900 diplomats at US missions around the world have heeded that advice, and are using social media as part of their day-to-day diplomacy.

Fergus Hanson, from the Lowy Institute in Sydney and an expert in e-diplomacy, eavesdropped on that Foggy Bottom session. “The State Department is really creating what is effectively a media empire that could soon be the digital equivalent of old school international broadcasters like the BBC,” he says. “But they not only see it as part of a broadcasting strategy, they are looking at the wider potential.”

Social media acts like an early warning system of emerging social and political movements, he says. It is also a way of reaching online opinion formers, and a means of correcting misinformation very quickly.

The State Department now has an internal version of Wikipedia called Diplopedia, which has more than 14,000 entries. To encourage internal networking, there is also an equivalent of Facebook called Corridor – in the look and feel, the two are strikingly similar – which has over 6,500 members.

The State Department also uses a form of crowdsourcing to come up with solutions to problems. For instance, it went online to ask its employees for cost-cutting ideas. A diplomat in China, who suspected that electricity was being stolen from the US embassy compound by nearby residents tapping into a wire, proposed setting up a meter to chart its usage. It not only showed that neighbours were stealing electricity, but that the energy company was overcharging. The discovery saved tens of thousands of dollars.

In its public diplomacy, the State Department has taken to the web to advise on how people can circumvent restrictive firewalls and beat online government censorship.

“The US thinks internet freedom will be one of the defining issues of this century,” says Hanson. Indeed, the fight between an open and closed internet has been likened to the Cold War fight between capitalism and communism. Here, Washington has not only been critical of China. It raised objections to Australia’s plans to introduce an internet filter, and was not impressed when David Cameron raised the possibility of shutting down social networking sites during situations like the 2011 London riots.

Since publishing a landmark study on e-diplomacy in March this year, Hanson has been contacted by countries such as China and Russia who are looking to benefit from his expertise. Smaller nations, like Ireland and New Zealand, are also looking at the potential of e-diplomacy, partly because it is so inexpensive and can help overcome the problem of geographic remoteness.

For the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, blogging has been useful in shedding its famously stuffy image. Recently, Paul Madden, the High Commissioner in Canberra, informed readers on his blog that he had seen Scotland win its first rugby match on Australian soil for 30 years.

Greg Dorey, the ambassador to Ethiopia, reported on the country’s largest private equity investment to date: a brewery. “Today was about beer,” he wrote. “And as Benjamin Franklin put it, ‘beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.'”

But most e-diplomacy is far more serious. Peter Millett, the ambassador to Jordan, used his blog to describe a recent scene at the Syrian border: “The man was clearly traumatised after crossing the border from Syria. His eyes wide, he told us that he had seen his sister and her seven children murdered by regime thugs.”

Some foreign ministers have gone for a very chatty style of tweeting.

As well as chronicling his diplomatic travels, Bob Carr, Australia’s new foreign affairs minister, has been known to inform his 15,000 followers what he has just had for dinner. Recently, it was tender kangaroo cooked over a bed of fresh tomatoes, ginger, herbs, fennel, brussels sprouts and herbs, which he judged to be “terrific.”

He also links to his personal blog, Thoughtlines, which offers film and book reviews. Kevin Rudd, Carr’s predecessor as foreign affairs minister, tweeted about the health of his cat, Jasper. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, however, has been slow to grasp the potential of e-diplomacy. It maintains just one twitter feed, and has been reluctant to unleash its diplomats on the blogosphere.

E-diplomacy certainly carries risks. Even experienced practitioners, like the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, have run into trouble. Ahead of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, he drew criticism for what many thought was an insensitive missive: “Leaving Stockholm and heading for Davos. Looking forward to World Food Program dinner tonight. Global hunger is an urgent issue! #davos.”

Hunger and a slap-up meal did not sit happily side by side. In the argot of the Ttwittersphere, the tweet was judged a #fail.

Some prefer to maintain a diplomatic silence. Hillary Clinton, despite investing heavily in harnessing the power of the internet, does not tweet.

But e-diplomacy is the talk of foreign ministries the world over, as foreign affairs is increasingly conducted in 140 characters or less.

By Nick Bryant from Sydney

Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18856295

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