August 9, 2017
This phenomenon, however, is not unique to the U.S. Today, it poses significant challenges in developing democracies across the globe, including in Asia.
Nuruddin Ahmed is a social entrepreneur who finds innovative ways to tackle forces of political polarization and misinformation online in his home country of Bangladesh. In 2016, Nuruddin (“Nur”) was among the cohort of Asia Foundation Development Fellows, a prestigious year-long program that invests in young leaders across Asia, and augments their professional potential to drive positive change and eventual reforms in civil society, public policy, and governance. [Read more about the Fellowship program here.]
Nur began observing online political discussions from its quiet beginnings as a small but active blogosphere in 2005, at a time when internet access in Bangladesh stood at just 350,000 users. In just a decade, he witnessed rapid transformation as content streams grew exponentially, with internet connectivity rising to over 20 million users.
“When we started blogging in late 2005 in Bangladesh, we didn’t blog individually, but used ‘social blogs,’ or platforms, which were early iterations of political discourse and engagement online, especially by youth,” he said.
This era of blogging set the stage for Nur to develop a youth blogging platform, Shorob.com, publishing on various issues such as civic participation, human rights, and minority rights, reaching a quarter of a million Bengali-speaking youth.
“When we started blogging, Bangladesh was polarized between two major parties,” says Nur. “People were divided, similar to Democrat versus Republican in the U.S. In our country, it is AL [Awami League] versus BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party].”
Nur said that he started Shorob to try and bridge this polarization through a non-partisan platform to present diverse and under-represented perspectives. “I wanted to talk about important issues not from party or nationalistic angles. We never take a partisan position.”
Shorob is also a means to fight a growing cynicism toward the messiness of politics, particularly felt by youth. “I think that a majority of young people hate politics. There were actually pages dedicated to it, and they would take pride in hating their politicians. One of my personal goals with Shorob was to create an environment where politics is not something to hate, because without engaging we cannot change our country,” Nur said.
However, Nur regretted that the eventual evolution of content-sharing rendered blogs less influential, and a new era of political discourse was ushered in by social media.
“My personal understanding is that Facebook has reduced the quality of conversation. If you are posting on a social blog, you knew other readers were bloggers, and so they will have a sense of what you are talking about. But on Facebook, there is no other editor. You are on your own and you can post whatever you want. People don’t retract any statements, or say they made a mistake.”
An example of what he calls a “post-fact society” is a 2013 incident in Dhaka where Islamist protestors clashed with police which, according to the BBC, left 27 people dead.
Nur describes a loud and tense aftermath online. “Social media and blog feeds would be filled with drastically different figures for the death toll. Depending on how passionate your sympathies were for the political and religious groups involved, you might believe that either very few people had died, or that thousands had died.”
The murders of a targeted group of Bangladeshi bloggers in recent years has been a major setback for Nur’s hopes of relieving tensions. Nur now finds himself having to tread very carefully with opinions against a backdrop of deep-seated and contentious political narratives.
To help drive change, Nur has set out to strengthen his credentials as a social entrepreneur and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Western Ontario in Canada with a specialization in business economics, public policy, and social entrepreneurship.
He knows that political polarization will not be easy to resolve, but looks to leverage his technological background as a former engineer and combine it with social innovation to help chip away at the barriers to properly informed citizen engagement.
“There is no way you can talk about how to fight polarization until we get data. Data will let us know what is happening, the level of polarization and whether it goes along party lines, or along urban-rural lines. We need to start a conversation that recognizes there is polarization, because without acknowledging the problem, there is no solving the problem.”
Despite difficulties, Nur remains optimistic, and pins his hopes for reform on youth, as long as they do not succumb to the polarizing forces in today’s information streams.
“On some issues, such as the environment, our youth are more vocal than ever. Although many of them are not coming out to the streets to protest, on social media you see they are aware and they are talking about it. Digital media has allowed younger generations to be more aware than they were in the past.”
Davey Kim is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Asian American Exchange unit. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.