Telling good lies: Digital rhetoric and rumor in Bangladesh

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by Md. Sayeed Al-Zaman 15 February 2020

How to convince people? Thousands of ways might be there but with a single instrument, that is language. Pursuing others using speech was thought be an art in the Classical Greece: they named it “rhetoric”. Yet, some thinkers like Plato, who was discontented with rhetoric and designated it as a form of flattery, hold a negative attitude against it, while others, including Aristotle and Cicero, put its’ discussion and importance forward.

Interestingly, the way rhetoric works has been changed remarkably after the inception of internet. Complex algorithm and virtual interaction have significantly reduced the necessity of face-to-face (F2F) communication. It also widens the scope of being anonymous and untraced in digital forums that triggers uncertainty about the source and quality of information.

Further, unlike prior rhetorical practices and elements, we now have got: (a) uncountable audiences in digital platforms to persuade; (b) diverse digital contents as instruments of rhetoric (e.g. text, audio, video, image) to deliver to the audiences; and (c) immense reproduction and distribution capacity of these rhetorical contents within the least possible time, cost and labor.

That is why while earlier thinkers mainly focused on speech: its formulation, style, arrangement and delivery rather than written text and visual elements, today’s rhetorician must have the know-how of electronic words and digitality.

Beyond its positive virtues, digital rhetoric often exerts detrimental impacts when its nature is deceptive. Online rumor is a commonplace deception produced and furnished with digital rhetoric. Since the Ramu violence in 2012, issues related to online rumor have been disturbing Bangladesh society repeatedly. But what actually lies beneath of such digital rumors, and how/why it possesses so much power to govern public psyche?

Three tiers in life-cycle of online rumor could be discerned: (a) production and producer; (b) dissemination and disseminator; and (c) impact and affected. Producer of rumor is the rhetorician who might compose rumor contents with necessary rhetorical devices: analogy, epithet, hyperbole, and so on.

Disseminator(s) circulate the message with or without filtering based on their knowledge level and proximity with the event/information. Who would be affected by the rumor production and transmission can be known in the end: it could be the disseminator(s) him/herself or other third-party individual(s).

On 13 October 2017, for an instance, a hype was flooded Facebook user’s inbox in Bangladesh amid the global tension of internet insecurity. The message was somewhat like this: “Some virus in form of games will automatically intrude into your smartphone system to hack your personal data. Hence, you should stop using your device from 9pm to 10pm today. Source: BTRC”.

Without verifying the information, users vehemently circulated the message and created a pseudo-crisis. The producer of the message connected ongoing global tension with public fear of being hijacked: thus, created a fear-mongering situation. Afterwards, the producer of the message made some suggestions of how the users as potential affected could survive the crisis. To make them convinced, s/he deceptively added the name of a reliable source (i.e. Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, aka BTRC) so that the veracity of the information would not be questioned.

As we have seen in recent years, most of the rumors have specific intentions, perhaps, to execute definite sociopolitical agenda: we call it “disinformation”. Disinformation as rumor has left the deepest scars in Bangladesh society producing interreligious disharmony: Thakurpara violence; Pabna, Comilla and Bhola violence; Nasirnagar violence, and so forth. It has two features: have political purpose, and sources may be identified. In these events of disinformation, purposes were unearthed and perpetrators were red handed.

Surprisingly, rhetoric behind these incidents were identical: “alleged degradation of the holy Quran or Prophet (PBUH) or Islam by some Hindu and/or Buddhist men”. Herein, either images were doctored or identity theft was done by some Muslims to trap their non-Muslim targets. Their job was possibly to convince the local/general people that how non-Muslims are corrupting Islam, so bash them up to teach a lesson. In this part, the perpetrators used religious conviction and public sentiments in their rhetorical contents.

If we draw our attention to the recent rumors of collecting human head for the construction of Padma Bridge and child abduction to serve the very purpose, we would identify a different set of rhetorical composition. This time, the source was unspecified but cybernauts were hyperactive to disseminate misinformation regarding the issue.

The original information was intentionally or unintentionally distorted, and afterwards, knitted in a manner that was convenient to stir up public apprehension. Pattern of language: words and expressions, used in these types of rumor discourse convey mental images of horror and damages, which might be more convincing and engaging for the masses.

But why and when people are convinced with false or distorted information? Rumor usually emerge during the period of crisis, amid the scarcity of information, and if it deals with sensitive issues or issues of public interest.

We have already seen that in the case of religious disinformation, persuasive digital contents stroke religious sentiment adversely and compelled public to engage in violence. In the second case, cumulated mass fear reached higher following the information of kidnapping and killing of children. At that time, reliable information was scarce: therefore, rumor spread and vigilantism sparked.

From this brief overview, it seems digital rhetoric, in one way, has showed its potential by producing successful online rumor and, in another way, insinuated how difficult it could be to regulate in cyberspace. Further, the unique characteristics of rumor and internet, as we have discussed earlier, might ease the requirements of rhetorical skills for digital media.

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