Partho Protim Das

Engagement editor, Dismislab
Bangladesh 2023: A Year in Review of Misinformation Trends
This article is more than 2 months old

Bangladesh 2023: A Year in Review of Misinformation Trends

Partho Protim Das

Engagement editor, Dismislab

The 12th National Parliament election took place in Bangladesh on January 7, 2024, and its effects were seen in the spread of misinformation during the preceding year, 2023. An analysis of reports published by seven fact-checking sites dedicated to Bangladesh revealed that the final quarter of 2023, spanning from October to December, witnessed the highest volume of verified falsehoods and disinformation, and half of the misinformation circulating about Bangladesh during this period pertained to politics.

Videos emerged as the primary conduit for disseminating falsehoods over the years, with the utilization of artificial intelligence (AI) in fabricating videos becoming increasingly prominent. Social media platforms remained the predominant source of fake news, while traditional media exhibited a lower likelihood of spreading misinformation.

In 2023, a total of 2977 fact-check reports were published across the seven fact-checking websites.When multiple reports covered a single topic, only one was considered unique and subjected to analysis.

Out of the 2089 unique reports, a broader categorization into international, location-neutral, and Bangladesh-specific topics revealed that 51 percent of the misinformation related to Bangladesh was centered around politics. Other prevalent themes included sports, religion, entertainment, and disasters, in descending order of frequency.

Disasters and conflicts occurring beyond Bangladesh’s borders, such as the Israel-Gaza conflict and the earthquake in Turkey, significantly influenced the proliferation of fake news.

The last quarter of the year witnesses a surge in fake news, notably coinciding with intensified discussions and debates about elections. Political disinformation experienced a staggering increase of 320 percent in verified cases during the fourth quarter compared to the first quarter of 2023 (January-March). Throughout the entire year, one-third of the fact-checked content, encompassing both domestic and foreign affairs, pertained to politics.

In the initial two quarters of 2023, a substantial portion of political disinformation revolved around political conflicts, death hoaxes of politicians and character assassination of key political figures. However, starting from the third quarter, a notable shift occurred, with a rising prevalence of disinformation related to the US visa policy and visa restrictions. False claims emerged, asserting that visa restrictions had been imposed on various politicians, government officials, and other influential figures. 

It is crucial to note that the United States officially announced the new visa policy on May 24, 2023, specifying potential restrictions on visas for individuals obstructing the democratic electoral process in Bangladesh.

As the 12th National Parliament Elections approached, there was a discernible uptick in misinformation regarding the election process and the caretaker government. This impact became particularly pronounced in the fourth quarter of 2023. During this period, the BNP and other opposition political parties intensified their movement, advocating for elections under a non-party caretaker or interim government in Bangladesh. 

Misinformation surged during this time, encompassing orders for ministerial resignations, announcements of interim or caretaker government formation, declarations of a state of emergency, calls for elections under military oversight, and rumors of election schedule cancellations or postponements.

The spread of fake news escalated as the official election campaign began. A notable increase in fake news pertaining to “candidacy withdrawals” was observed, falsely claiming that a candidate had withdrawn from the election and endorsed another. Such misinformation was widely disseminated, with at least two instances of fake videos incorporating artificial intelligence. A special report on election related disinformation is available in this newsletter.

According to the analysis of fact-checking reports, in 2023, most dominant themes of fake news beyond politics were sports, religion, entertainment, and disasters. Misinformation about sports was particularly prevalent in the first and fourth quarters of 2023 coinciding with two major sports events.

Sports: In the domain of sports, nearly all of the fake news pertained to cricket and football. At the outset of 2023, there was an uptick in misinformation related to football, fueled by discussions surrounding the aftermath of the football world cup held in November-December 2022. And, during the Cricket World Cup in October-November 2023, fake news related to cricket gained more prominence. Approximately 35 percent of sports-related misinformation was associated with the Bangladeshi sports celebrities and events.

The most common types of sports fake news involved fabricated quotes or comments from celebrities. Examples included false claims such as Indian cricketer Mohammad Siraj dedicating a victory over Pakistan to Israel, Pep Guardiola declaring Cristiano Ronaldo the best footballer of all time, or a Turkish footballer allegedly making inappropriate remarks, asking women referees to stay in the kitchen.

Various false information regarding the personal lives or off-field activities of players was also shared on social media, including claims that Messi or Ronaldo provided financial aid to earthquake victims, Messi gifted gold iPhones to teammates, and Neymar made money through online gambling. Incorrect information related to sports statistics and records of players or teams was observed to be published in traditional media outlets.

Entertainment: Numerous false claims about entertainment celebrities in Bangladesh were verified through hundreds of fact-check reports published in 2023. A substantial portion of these reports involved false assertions about the personal lives of stars. For instance, there were false claims that actor Farooq remained hospitalized due to financial constraints or that Indian actors Hrithik Roshan and Akshay Kumar released videos in support of Palestine.

Edited photos, videos of celebrities, and death rumors also constituted a significant portion of such misinformation. According to fact-checking data, approximately 6 percent of the circulated fake photos and videos of celebrities as such were created using artificial intelligence.

Religion: Another dominant theme in Bangladesh is the misinformation landscape, religious affairs contributed to about 9 percent of the fact-checked misinformation. Subjects in this theme often include false claims about various religious figures, such as Islamic speaker Zakir Naik and International Quran Contest participant Saleh Ahmad Takreem. False assertions about Takreem being greeted or gifted by India’s West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee or Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina were reportedly driven by an attempt to monetize YouTube videos.

Various false information in the religious context pertains to matters such as conversion and claims of miracles. Examples include the unfounded claims that Dutch footballer Robin van Persie converted to Islam or that 700,000 Christians in the United States converted to Hinduism. False news about supposed miraculous events, such as angels being seen in Al-Aqsa Mosque or the word of God being heard from the mouth of a newborn baby gained a large audience.

Disasters and Others: Conflicts and disasters outside Bangladesh played a key role in the local misinformation space. For instance, after the start of the Israel-Gaza conflict on October 7, 2023, fact-checking organizations published nearly 100 reports verifying several misinformation related to this conflict. Out of the unique fact-checked misinformation on international affairs in 2023, 87 percent was spread in the fourth quarter and primarily focused on Israel-Palestine.

A similar pattern is observed in the case of natural disasters like major earthquakes and cyclones.The earthquake in Turkey and New Zealand and Cyclone Mocha contributed to the spread of various fake news in the year 2023.

The month of February 2023 saw the highest number of fact-check reports published on disaster-related topics. This coincided with a powerful earthquake hitting the Turkey-Syria border on February 6, resulting in over 50,000 casualties. In May, the number of reports increased slightly due to the impact of Cyclone Mocha, affecting Bangladesh and Myanmar.

A common trend in the spread of fake disaster information is sharing pictures and videos from old or different locations, falsely presented as recent disasters. This practice is not limited to social media, as mainstream media in Bangladesh has also been observed to publish old photos and videos while reporting on disasters.  

Source and Medium

According to the chart below, 86 percent of verified fake news originated from social media platforms, with Facebook and YouTube being the primary contributors. The majority of misinformation was shared through statuses, pictures, and videos posted on these platforms. Traditional media in Bangladesh, including newspapers, TV channels, and online portals, accounted for 12.5 percent of fake news.

In 2023, video emerged as the predominant medium for spreading fake information in Bangladesh, constituting 39 percent of the total. Following video, the use of images accounted for 23 percent, and graphics cards contributed 15 percent. From the third quarter to the fourth quarter, the dissemination of disinformation through video increased by 68 percent.

During the same period, there was also a noticeable increase in the use of graphic cards, which has seen consistent growth since 2023. Graphic card usage to spread misinformation surged by 53 percent in the fourth quarter compared to the third quarter. In numerous instances, these graphic cards featured logos or branding associated with mainstream media. A detailed analysis of this trend is available in Dismislab’s December newsletter.