Digital vigilantes

The criminalisation of online speech has enabled the creation of digital vigilantes — the already “powerful”, the sycophants and the attention seekers.

Digital vigilantes
Dhaka, Bangladesh. May 17th 2020. Stencil street art on a wall in the capital: "Release those arrested, Repeal the Digital Security Act." Photo: MD Mehedi Hasan/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

On November 18th 2018, Chowdhury — a self-proclaimed “die-hard supporter” of the prime minister of Bangladesh — sent a legal notice to the cinema at the Jamuna Future Park shopping mall, which was screening the newly released biopic “Hasina: A Daughter’s Tale”. “Tale” in the title was misspelt as “tail” and was corrected later. Chowdhury felt that the spelling mistake was humiliating and demanded the blockbuster cinema correct the error and apologise publicly or face a $90 million lawsuit. In online exchanges, opinion was split about the lawsuit. “How should I react — laugh or cry? Tale becomes tail which is definitely defamatory,” said one Facebook user, while another responded by saying, “It’s just a typo, bro. Apparently, you are using cannons to fight mosquitoes.” 

This incident highlights the prevalence of events where individuals feel that the state has been humiliated, and they need to take steps to redress it. First enacted by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 2006, the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act) was amended and made more draconian by the Awami League (AL) government, culminating as the harsher Digital Security Act (DSA), passed on October 8th 2018 under the framework of Digital Bangladesh.

The criminalisation of online speech has enabled the creation of digital vigilantes who are predominantly the already “powerful” along with a vast multitude of sycophants and attention seekers who may not necessarily have much power but are motivated by their personal contestations and aspirations of being recognised and rewarded for providing services in terms of spotting and highlighting dissident or critical voices, which might also serve their own local rivalries. In these instances, their personal ambition is the critical driver rather than any enduring loyalty to the political figures.

The tragic murder of engineering student Abrar Fahad in October 2019 brought home the extreme actions being taken by the digital vigilantes. Abrar, who was “grilled” by AL student activists for his critical Facebook posts on the India–Bangladesh water deal, was suspected of being involved with the Islamist student group Islami Chhatra Shibir and thereafter beaten to death, which led to widespread protests in Bangladeshi universities.

The ICT Act/DSA enables the state to undertake surveillance by extending the eyes of the state so that all citizens who are offended can be digital vigilantes on behalf of the state, creating an alliance of the defamed with the state at its helm.

Along with the existing powerful coteries and formal agents of the state invoking this law, certain groups of self-seeking “citizens” and sycophants are involved in surveillance and making accusations as local and digital vigilantes. So not only do the locally powerful use the ICT/DSA and act as the eyes of the state, it also enables powerful citizens and their acolytes to build up a local politics of patronage and fear. The threat of invoking these laws legitimises the party locally and nationally, while, at the same time, enables them to try to gain the attention of those more powerful than them.

Digital life in Bangladesh started in 1996 with the advent of the Internet in the country. The usage of the technology had risen by 517.3% around 2012. In 2015, the nation had over 120 million mobile subscribers and 43 million Internet subscribers. As Bangla fonts and keyboards came to be developed in 2005, community blogging picked up in Bangladesh, and bloggers became a growing presence. It was not long after this that the ICT Act became law.

It is however evident that gaining conviction in court is not necessarily the critical objective of prosecution. The very fact of being charged results in a chain reaction of harassment and social sanctions, some of which may be held in reserve for suitable future occasions. In these instances, the law is being enforced, and the underlying objectives are being attained in effect, even if there is no conviction.

While there are few convictions, the process of remand and arrest seeks to suppress dissent and carries social consequences. Individuals face the constant threat of being arrested, held in pretrial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, fines and imprisonment, as well as the social stigma associated with having a criminal record. The main intent with which it is being used is to threaten and frighten people into inaction and silence.

State practices often set out to monitor and transform behaviour through what the historian Michel Foucault would describe as governmentality, the internalisation of power into one’s physical acts, movements, instincts and thought processes (the gentle click of a “like”).

As the technologies and techniques that appear to be able to challenge the state seem to multiply, the ways of deterring the citizenry appear to proliferate and intensify, moving from an anxiety over what one can read or discuss through to what one can “like” or “post”. Through an obsession with tarnishing the image of the state, a new image of the state is produced: an accelerating, expanding and mutating machine that presents itself as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, a machine that can make local, molecular events (such as an arrest or accusation) national or global, an element in a spectacle of deterrence. It is a machine that can make national events or policies feel increasingly local and personal, individualised or intimate, expanding and intensifying an environment of fear.

What is alarming here is how new laws are being used to limit discussion of older, more “traditional” problems (corruption, problems of governance, violations of rights, denial of democratic rights and space), and the invocation of “older” problems (the hurting of religious sentiment, tarnishing the image of the state) is being deployed in attempts to control the new technologies that the state is both seduced by and terrified of — the poison and cure of Digital Bangladesh.●

Mark Lacy is an associate director of Security Lancaster and senior lecturer in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at the University of Lancaster. Nayanika Mookherjee is a professor of anthropology at the University of Durham.

This is an excerpted version of the article “Firing cannons to kill mosquitoes: Controlling virtual ‘streets’ and the ‘image of the state’ in Bangladesh” published in the journal Contributions to Indian Sociology (volume 54, issue 2, 2020).

🔗 Mark Lacy and Nayanika Mookherjee – “Firing cannons to kill mosquitoes: Controlling virtual ‘streets’ and the ‘image of the state

Also See:

🔗 Netra News – The Bangladesh prime minister speaks about Freedom of Speech

🔗 Netra News – What is wrong with FIR against the Facebook-11

🔗 Netra News – Bangladesh’s precipitous decline in online freedoms