Tamara Yesmin Toma

Researcher, Dismislab
How Netizens Mistake Satire for DSCC Mayor’s Actual Speech
This article is more than 10 months old

How Netizens Mistake Satire for DSCC Mayor's Actual Speech

Tamara Yesmin Toma

Researcher, Dismislab

The online sphere is buzzing with controversy as social media users mistakenly perceive a satire as an actual speech delivered by Mayor Sheikh Fazle Noor Tapas of Dhaka South City Corporation. Screenshots of a news report claiming the mayor’s stance on tree cutting have been widely shared (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), but subsequent verification revealed that the quoted statement was, in fact, a satirical piece published in a newspaper.

The controversy originated from the incident of cutting down road divider trees in the capital city last month. Dhaka South City Corporation had removed numerous flowers and fruit trees, including Mahogany and Neem, from Dhanmondi’s Sat Masjid road, citing beautification as the reason. Environmentalists and civil society strongly criticized the action, leading to organized protest rallies against the tree felling.

On May 13, a satirical piece titled “Cutting Trees to Make Way for Air” was published in the Daily Star. Twenty-four days later, on June 7, Mayor Sheikh Fazle Noor Tapas issued a legal notice to the Daily Star editor, Mahfuz Anam, demanding compensation of Tk 100 crore for defamation, claiming that the satire report was damaging. Similar notices were sent to the magazine’s executive editor and the writer of the satire.

Multiple news outlets reported on Mayor Tapas’ defamation notice (1, 2, 3, 4). The viral screenshot on Facebook, which circulated as the Mayor’s speech, was actually from a report titled “Mayor Tapas issues a notice demanding compensation from the editor of the Daily Star” published on Jamuna TV online on June 7. The report presented the Daily Star’s content as a regular news report, without indicating that it was satire or fiction.

The report stated, On May 13, a news item titled ‘Cutting Trees to Make Way for Air’ appeared in the Daily Star. It mentioned that the Dhaka South City Corporation had initiated a tree-cutting program in the southern part of Dhaka due to intense heat. Environmentalists protested against this. Regarding the tree cutting, Mayor Tapas argued that Dhaka resembled a jungle with trees planted everywhere, occupying too much space while leaving less air available.

A screenshot of this part of the report circulated on social media as the Mayor’s speech, which is actually a Bangla translation of the third and fourth paragraphs of the Daily Star’s satire piece “Cutting Trees to Make Way for Air”.

However, an observation of the original satirical report from the Daily Star revealed that Mayor Fazle Noor Tapas’ name was not mentioned anywhere. Due to unclear reporting, Jamuna TV has caused confusion. It is important to note that the satire in question actually mentioned a fictional city called ‘Dhoka Dakshin’ instead of Dhaka. Unfortunately, this lack of clarity led many readers to mistakenly believe that the satire statement was Mayor Tapas’ actual statement. Consequently, the misinformation quickly spread across various social media platforms.

The Daily Star features a special page called Satire Day on page 16 every Saturday, but the May 13 e-paper did not include page 16. After receiving the legal notice, the entire page, including the report, was removed. However, screenshots of the report from the e-paper version of the Daily Star can still be found on social media.

The original satire is also unavailable in the magazine’s online version. Nevertheless, in response to Mayor Tapas’ legal notice, the Daily Star clarified in a statement that the satire piece was referred to as a ‘report’ or a ‘column’ during the press briefing, which was incorrect. It was a work of fiction. Such fictional writing on public matters is recognized and popular worldwide within the field of journalism. The article was published in the Daily Star’s weekly magazine, ‘Satireday.’

Jamuna TV has updated its report at least three times since the incident. After realizing the confusion, they added a separate footnote requesting that the satire not be mistaken for the mayor’s speech. They also highlighted that the confusion arose due to the mayor’s lawyer repeatedly referring to the satire as news in the legal notice.

Upon verifying the original legal notice, it can be observed that the notice actually explains that the satire uses the fictional names ‘Fapos’ and ‘Dhoka’ instead of Mayor Tapas and Dhaka.

Public reaction

On social media, a viral screenshot was shared, accompanied by a comment expressing concern over the irresponsible nature of the alleged comments. Another netizen humorously remarked that giving up shame and brains is essential for anyone aspiring to be a political figure in Bangladesh.

In the comment section, individuals condemned, criticized, and even laughed at the mayor’s speech. Various comments referred to the mayor as a donkey or questioned whether their words came from their mouths or elsewhere.

Earlier, Mayor Tapas had told reporters last month that trees are often cut down during development work when there is no alternative, expressing his sadness about it.

Sumon Rahman, director and founder of the fact-checking organization Factwatch, explained why the media and netizens failed to identify the satire. He stated that confirmation bias played a role, as people already had a perception of the mayor’s insensitivity due to continuous media reports on tree cutting in Dhanmondi. Consequently, they accepted the satirical statement as truth due to their confirmation bias.

The media’s failure to recognize satire is not an isolated incident. Satire has previously been mistaken for real news, such as when a satire about Australian all-rounder Glenn Maxwell filing a police complaint regarding stolen shoes at his wedding was reported as factual news by various outlets. Similarly, an interesting report from Prothom Alo titled “The United States sought Bangladesh’s help in counting votes” was also spread as real news.

In February of this year, a claim circulated on Facebook regarding the Turkey-Syria earthquake, stating that Pakistani politician Maulana Fazlur Rahman attributed earthquakes to women wearing jeans. This claim had been spreading on social media since 2015, but upon verification, it was discovered to originate from a satire report. For more details on how satire gives rise to misinformation and fake news, you can refer to our comprehensive report.

The use of satire as a form of protest is not new. According to Nigerian researcher Julia K. Udofia, satire serves a purpose beyond humor, aiming to address and fix societal issues. Therefore, satire often becomes a form of protest.

Sumon Rahman commented that the satire, initially written in a humorous manner, escalated to a different level due to the legal notice, causing the matter to gain attention.

Qadaruddin Shishir pointed out that prior to June 7, there was no public discussion on social media regarding the issue. This suggests that the topic did not gain attention until news of the legal notice surfaced in the media.

Shishir emphasized that The Daily Star did not publish any statements from Mayor Tapas. However, in the legal notice, Mayor Tapas referred to these fictional statements as a “distortion” of his own remarks. As a result, even though the satire had not gained much attention previously, it started circulating as a false statement after media reports covered the legal notice attributing the mayor.