Disinformation trends: new narratives, targets, and tactics in the run-Up to national elections
As the 12th National Parliamentary elections draw near, the surge in political disinformation has become evident. Verified instances of false or misleading political information, as scrutinised by various fact-checking organisations, have increased by more than 56 percent from July to September this year compared to the preceding three months.
Dismislab’s analysis highlights the emergence of visa policies and sanctions as new subjects for disinformation, while the creation of counterfeit photocards under the guise of mainstream media has become a prominent disinformation tactic. Though the traditional trend of spreading disinformation about politicians persists, a new focus has shifted towards targeting US Ambassador Peter Haas.
This data stems from the scrutiny of 2,049 fact-check reports published on seven fact-checking websites between January and September this year. In cases where multiple fact-checks existed on a topic, one was selected as unique. Of the misleading information about Bangladesh identified in a single fact-check, 44% pertained to politics.
In Bangladesh, the propagation of falsehoods or misinformation tends to centre around four key topics: politics, religion, disasters, and sports. This analysis categorises false or misleading information that involves political figures, parties, issues, elections, democracy, events, or commentary under the political category. National and international political data are separately analysed.
The data analysis reveals a direct correlation between the proximity of the election and the escalation of false and misleading information within the political realm each quarter. There was a 74% increase in political misinformation identified in the second quarter compared to the first quarter (January-March), and an additional 56% increase in the third quarter compared to the second quarter. In September alone, fact-checking organisations identified 83 instances of false political information, contrasting with a mere 31 in January.
To understand the political targeting within disinformation campaigns, the fact-check data was classified into three groups: Awami League, BNP, and others. The “others” category encompasses individuals such as the US ambassador, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, and groups like Jamaat-e-Islami, Hefazat-e-Islami, Gono Adhiokar Parishad, and various government and statutory bodies.
The analysis reveals that out of the 370 instances of verified political misinformation in Bangladesh, 40 percent were directed towards the Awami League, while BNP was targeted in 26 percent of cases. The remaining 34 percent pertains to the other categories. When classifying “Awami League and government offices”, and “BNP and political dissidents” into two distinct groups, disinformation appears to be disseminated around the two major blocks at a more or less equal rate. Most of the false and misleading content carry a negative tone, but each category also contains some instances of fake praises of leaders and their actions.
The Fake News Narrative
The figures above shed light on the key topic and common narratives surrounding political propaganda. Most of the false narratives centred around caretaker governments, US visa policies and sanctions, elections, resignations of top government officials, deaths of key political leaders, and political violence.
Since the second quarter, fake news has been particularly rampant surrounding caretaker governments, often suggesting Dr. Muhammad Yunus as its head, sometimes with backing from figures like Peter Haas or Barack Obama. The second narrative suggests that either the United States, the Bangladesh Army, or the President of Bangladesh himself has “approved” the caretaker system.
In the third quarter, a surge in disinformation centred around US visa policies and sanctions became evident, with an increase in September. Instances included the widespread circulation of lists falsely claiming visa bans on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, government ministers, advisors, pro-government teachers, and police officers, as well as fabricated statements attributed to the US ambassador asserting visa bans on BNP Acting Chairman Tarique Rahman and Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. There was also a prevalence of misinformation suggesting visa cancellations in Dubai or Singapore involving individuals like Salman F Rahman or specific police officers outside the US.
Unbelievable and bizarre fake deaths have been falsely reported for at least half a dozen political figures, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and BNP leader Khaleda Zia. Other victims of fake death news include Roads and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader, Information Minister Hasan Mahmud, musician and MP Momtaz, and Khelafat Majlish leader Mamunul Haque. In most cases, death rumours circulate on social media through videos or shorts. And certain YouTube channels regularly disseminate these videos with the primary goal of generating revenue through clicks, where the thumbnails often differ from the actual video content.
Falsehoods Targeting Individuals
The image above illustrates the extent of fake news identified by seven fact-checking websites targeting key individuals. The prominence of a name indicates the quantity of verified fake news. Nearly half of the false information related to the Awami League targeted Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, primarily on political matters.
The false information about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina included claims of her being asked to resign or resigning by various countries and organisations, including the United Nations, the United States, and India. Other false narratives involved BNP workers obstructing her during international visits and the imposition of visa bans. Some even went as far as presenting her as deceased; in a recurring false news, she was ranked as the third-best Prime Minister globally.
For BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia, verified misinformation mostly centred around her health and travel abroad for treatment. Some social media accounts falsely spread news of her death, while in two instances, fake news focused on her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Tarique Rahman, Khaleda Zia’s son, featured prominently in both negative and complimentary fake posts. Distorted images circulated, such as him posed with a bottle of wine or on the back of a horse. Fake news reported his arrest, mobbing, and potential visa bans. Some videos even featured a Pakistani dancer falsely claiming to be Tariq Rahman’s daughter Zaima.
A notable example of how disinformation adapts to political trends involves US Ambassador Peter Haas. False statements attributed to Haas proliferated on social media with the enforcement of the US visa policy. In just one week following the announcement of the policy on September 22, six fake news stories about the ambassador and around a dozen fake news stories about visa bans circulated.
Individuals generating a significant amount of fake news included the late Jamaat leader Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, Khelafat Majlish leader Mamunul Haque, political activist Nurul Haq Nur and social media celebrity Hero Alam. Misinformation on Sayeedi, in this nine month period, was particularly concerning his funeral.
Key Tactics and Format
The image above provides crucial insights into disinformation tactics used by the actors. Firstly, it highlights that the majority of fake information is disseminated through social media via videos. Secondly, it underscores the emerging trend of increasingly employing fake graphics cards that mimic mainstream media to propagate deceptive news..
Throughout each quarter of the year, the video format consistently emerges as the most prevalent medium for the spread of falsehoods or misinformation, with the use of images coming second as a tactic. However, there is a noticeable decline in the use of pictures each quarter, with a simultaneous rise in the use of graphics cards. Fake graphics cards saw a significant 42 percent increase in the third quarter compared to the first.
Out of the 81 manipulated media content identified this year in fact-check reports, a substantial 69% were employed for spreading local political disinformation. These cards commonly feature fabricated quotes attributed to various individuals, often utilising names and logos or manipulating screenshots of mainstream media outlets. About 43 percent of these are political fake quotes.
Examples of such fake quotes include statements like, “Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir will be banned from visa,” falsely attributed to Peter Haas. Conversely, a fabricated statement in the name of Mirza Fakhrul suggests, “Biden and Rishi Sunak will be tried if BNP comes to power.” Manipulated photo cards are used for spreading fake news as well. For instance, a media card was replicated with the false claim, “Sheikh Hasina asked the administration for another chance” and another fake card falsely claims, “Mirza Fakhrul left the country with his family for Singapore.”
This analysis delves into fact-check reports to discern patterns in false and misleading information within Bangladesh. It spans nine months from January to September 2023, and incorporates reports published in seven fact checking websites including RumorScanner, BoomBD, NewsChecker, Fact Crescendo, Fact Watch, AFP Bangladesh, and Dismislab. A total of 2,049 fact-check reports published on these websites during this period were scrutinised for analysis.
At times fact-checking organisations publish fact checks as social media cards rather than full reports on their websites. For methodological clarity, this analysis only considers the reports published on their official websites.
In instances where multiple sites countered the same misinformation, only one site’s fact-check report was considered as a unique sample to quantify subject-specific misinformation and disinformation. The number of unique reports was 1,395.
The fact-check reports were categorized into three geographic categories: local or Bangladeshi, international, and location-neutral. About 60 percent of the false or misleading information identified, pertained to Bangladesh.
The unique fact-check reports were further divided into 15 categories, including politics, sports, health, nature and environment, entertainment, fraud, disaster, religion, science and technology, law and order, education, economy & development, defence, policy & public affairs, and others. Targets of disinformation, such as individuals and political figures, were documented separately.
Limitations: Limitations should be acknowledged, recognizing that fact-checkers cannot verify all fake news, rumours, or disinformation due to their methodology. For example, many posts on social media may not be checked simply because they are not checkable, even though they may appear to be false or harmful. Therefore, this analysis does not purport to represent all falsehoods or disinformation circulating on social media.
However, the decision to focus on fact-check reports is underpinned by the rigorous criteria and methods followed by fact-checkers, aligning with IFCN standards. Therefore, the selected samples provide a reliable basis for verified mis/disinformation. This systematic approach ensures the meticulous collection of accurate information.