How Facebook-based citizen journalism influences national issues – Notice Global Internet

Two of Bangladesh’s most discussed issues of late underscored the influence of Facebook-based citizen journalism, where ordinary individuals actively engaged in gathering new information, interpreting existing facts and verifying details

In May this year, a popular Bangladeshi YouTuber, Iftekhar Rafsan (widely known as Rafsan the ChotoBhai), gave his parents an expensive Audi car. He posted about it on social media, which garnered a lot of attention.  

Soon, a Facebook user brought to everyone’s attention that Rafsan’s parents had an outstanding bank loan exceeding Tk3 crore. He provided documents like bank notifications published in national dailies and High Court writ copies.

This sparked a public debate about whether it was ethical on Rafsan’s part to spend so much money on buying an expensive car for his parents instead of helping them repay their debt.

The country’s mainstream media picked up on the issue and began circulating news stories, which led to Rafsan uploading a video on Facebook to counter the allegations. 

Afterwards, the said Facebook user responded with another scathing rebuttal, addressing all the arguments Rafsan had previously made and becoming sort of yet another “social media celebrity” in the process. 

The man in question is Saiyed Abdullah, a graduate of the Department of Law at Dhaka University. 

A little over a month later, Abdullah once again ignited a nationwide controversy by exposing the infamous “Goat issue,” involving one Mushfiqur Rahman Ifat, his father and an NBR official Matiur Rahman, as well as the Sadeeq Agro farm. 

A video surfaced showing Ifat bragging about purchasing a Tk15 lakh goat from Sadeeq Agro. However, in reality, he had only paid Tk1 lakh in advance and hadn’t completed the purchase. Following this, Abdullah began questioning the origin of Matiur’s income and his substantial wealth.

This time, another Facebook user named Azaher Uddin Anik, a Computer Science and Engineering graduate from Dhaka University, also caught everyone’s attention, as he kept on unearthing both Ifat and Matiur’s past misdemeanours. 

When Matiur claimed to some national media outlets that Ifat was not actually his son, Anik quickly confirmed through Ifat’s public examination result card and his past social media posts that he was indeed Matiur’s son, albeit from his second wife.

Once again, this became a national issue. It led to Matiur’s removal from his NBR post and Sonali Bank’s board as well as the freezing of bank accounts belonging to Matiur and his family.

Recently, the Dhaka North city authorities also evicted a farm of Sadeeq Agro, which had illegally occupied the Ramchandrapur canal and the adjacent road in Mohammadpur.

Thus, two of the country’s most discussed issues of late underscored the influence of Facebook-based citizen journalism, where ordinary individuals actively engaged in gathering new information, interpreting existing facts and verifying details. 

This approach ensured that these issues remained in the news cycle for an extended period and received the attention they deserved.

According to Dr Jude William Genilo, Pro Vice Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), Facebook-based citizen journalism in Bangladesh has become a powerful tool for real-time reporting, raising awareness and mobilising social change.  

Dr Genilo, also the Head of the Media Studies and Journalism Department at ULAB, pointed at several factors contributing to this, including “widespread access and use of Facebook, a platform for localised and diversified perspectives, community building among netizens, advocacy campaigns, and ability to challenge mainstream narratives.”

Notably, although Abdullah and Anik have only recently come to the limelight, they have been speaking extensively on various social issues and against corruption on Facebook for a long time.

What motivates them to raise their voices on social media? 

Abdullah said he lacks faith in the way traditional media in Bangladesh covers important issues. “I always felt the necessity of a parallel media that would delve deeper into issues and make everything visible to the people,” he explained, and so he took it upon himself to fill that role.

Anik pointed out that even before they started talking about Matiur, there had already been some news coverage of the NBR official’s corruption. “But before the goat issue went viral on social media, no one really took notice of it,” he said.

Similar things happened in both Sadeeq Agro’s and Rafsan’s cases as well. 

Back on 5 July 2021, dairy farm Sadeeq, a concern of Sadeeq Agro Limited, attempted to import 18 cows of Brahma breed without prior permission from the authorities concerned and without opening a letter of credit (LC).

They were seized by the customs officials at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. 

This was taken to the High Court, who on 3 August the same year upheld the customs officials’ decision to seize the cows. Now once again mainstream media are covering this issue with great interest.

In the same vein, the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) imposed a Tk30,000 fine on 24 April this year during a raid at the DrinkBlu Beverage factory in Cumilla for not having a product packaging certificate and manufacturing the drink in unsanitary conditions. 

Rafsan launched the Blu product line last December. People only took notice of the Blu case two days after Rafsan uploaded the video against Abdullah on 15 May.

Essentially, Facebook-based citizen journalists like Abdullah and Anik are not only revealing new information—something typically done by professional journalists—but also drawing attention to existing facts, allowing them to be seen in a new light and adding context to today’s burning issues.

However, the practice of citizen journalism is not as easy as it seems. Abdullah has already been victimised by frequent reports against his Facebook profile, resulting in his account being suspended four times so far. Additionally, a fake account was created using his name and pictures to deceive others and tarnish his image.

“Facebook suspended my ID without providing any valid reason, which shows that Facebook, to some extent, is also against upholding people’s freedom of expression,” Abdullah regretted.

Mukhtar Ibn Rafique, a media entrepreneur, once tried to institutionalise citizen journalism with his popular website Egiye Cholo, which played a significant role in mobilising the country’s youth during the quota reform and road safety movements in 2018.

Mukhtar had to shut down its operation in 2021 for reasons he prefers not to disclose. While he lauded the recent citizen journalism practices on Facebook, he felt that attempts to suspend Abdullah’s ID or create fake profiles are evidence of ongoing efforts to silence independent voices.

Citing the example of popular Indian YouTuber Dhruv Rathee who made some important content leading up to India’s recent Lok Sabha election, Mukhtar asserted that Bangladesh’s new generation of citizen journalists too can bring about a positive change by holding the government and other institutions accountable. 

But for this to happen, he believed that personal safety for every citizen is crucial. “Mass people should speak up, practice citizen journalism, and act as pressure groups. But first, they need to be assured that speaking up won’t lead to any dire consequences. This extent of freedom of expression must be guaranteed,” he said.

Dr Genilo also mentioned the safety and security of journalists, as well as regulations governing social media usage, as some of the biggest challenges facing Facebook-based citizen journalism.

Additionally, he felt that the spread of misinformation could be detrimental to the credibility and sustainability of such journalism. 

Meanwhile, Md Shamsul Islam, Head of Journalism, Communication and Media Studies at the State University of Bangladesh, argued that it is debatable to what extent Facebook-based citizen journalism influences core national issues.

“Regarding macro issues like changing our political dynamics, foreign policy postures or bringing in key economic changes, citizen journalism could rarely influence the policy-making process, whether these issues are discussed or not on social media,” Islam said. 

However, he observed that policy shifts are noticeable concerning micro issues. 

“For example, most recently, we have seen battery-run rickshaw drivers being permitted on Dhaka streets in the wake of huge social media criticism,” he explained. 

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