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Alarming rise in religious misinfo on BD social media: Study

Words of faith 2024-06-04, 11:23pm

locals-set-fire-to-the-houses-of-two-hindu-families-in-magura-for-insulting-the-holy-prophet-on-facebook-on-may-19-2024-photo-collected-via-unb-f22f2ef327e4cef2b65edf3d38d16da31717521784.jpg

Locals set fire to the houses of two Hindu families in Magura for insulting the Holy Prophet on Facebook on May 19, 2024 (Photo Collected) via UNB



Dhaka, June 3 — As technology becomes more accessible, the involvement of all classes of people on social media is increasing, and with it, the spread of religious misinformation is also on the rise. This misinformation often incites violence against minority communities, affecting social harmony and religious coexistence.

The negative reactions to religious issues on social media frequently lead to conflicts among followers of the major religions in Bangladesh. These incidents not only result in loss of property but also in loss of life.

In recent years, negative comments or posts about religion on Facebook have led to significant incidents such as the 2016 vandalism of 19 Hindu temples and over 300 houses in Nasirnagar, Brahmanbaria, and the 2017 vandalism and arson of over 100 Hindu temples and homes in Gangachara, Rangpur, sparked widespread criticism.

Beyond blasphemy, derogatory remarks about religious figures on social media have also led to attacks and conflicts. For instance, 88 houses and 7-8 family temples belonging to the Hindu community were vandalized and looted following allegations of derogatory comments about Islamic scholar Mamunul Haque in Shalla Upazila of Sunamganj on March 17, 2021.

A groundbreaking study has unveiled concerning insights into how social media users in Bangladesh engage with religious misinformation. Conducted by Md. Sayeed Al-Zaman, assistant professor of Journalism and Media Studies department of Jahangirnagar University, it highlights the pervasive spread of misinformation and its destructive impact on societal harmony.

The study, titled "Social Media Users’ Engagement with Religious Misinformation: An Exploratory Sequential Mixed-Methods Analysis," focuses on Bangladesh, the fourth-largest Muslim-majority country in the world. The rise of social media usage in the country has paralleled a disturbing increase in the dissemination of false religious information. This misinformation often incites violence against minority communities and threatens the fabric of interreligious relations.

Al-Zaman employed an exploratory sequential mixed-methods design for the study. This included a qualitative thematic analysis of 1,819 user comments on a specific misinformation incident, followed by a quantitative content analysis of 7,350 comments across five different cases.

The findings revealed that users engage with misinformation through discourse topics, reactions, and appraisals. The majority of discourse topics were radical and political, with fewer discussions focused on purely religious issues. An overwhelming 94.1% of reactions to religious misinformation were negative. This negative engagement often manifested in destructive behaviors and sentiments, with negative reactions outstripping positive ones by over seventeen times. Furthermore, the study found that 69.3% of users tend to believe the misinformation they encounter, whereas only 25.9% were able to recognize and reject it. Nearly half of the users held radical views, reacted negatively, and believed in the misinformation simultaneously.

Despite the existence of legal acts for punishment in cases of blasphemy, users often believe false or misleading religious information and react negatively and violently, leading to frequent social instability.

The research showed that the violence and tensions arising from religious misinformation are more politically motivated than purely religious. It also points out the role of social media algorithms in promoting such content, thereby exacerbating societal divisions. Al-Zaman's findings underscore the urgent need for effective strategies to counter misinformation. Policymakers, social media platforms, and civil society must collaborate to mitigate the spread of false information and protect interreligious harmony in Bangladesh.

Sayeed-Al-Zaman suggested to prevent harmful or unacceptable information or content online, to protect users, and to address various online-influenced issues in society, the Cybersecurity Act 2023 was enacted. Nonetheless, it is crucial to adopt or enact specific measures or laws exclusively for misinformation prevention.

In a religiously sensitive country like Bangladesh, proper digital literacy is also extremely necessary alongside misinformation prevention, he added. - UNB