There is an upsurge of Bangladeshi politicians using social media platforms, particularly Facebook, to reach out to their constituents and supporters. Beyond outreach, politicians also seem to peruse social media platforms to learn about the public opinion
Obaidul Quader, Awami League’s general secretary, is very popular on Facebook, with more than 17.5 lakh followers on his verified account. He often posts ‘stylish’ pictures of himself on different occasions on his verified Facebook page.
On the morning of 14 April, he wished his followers Shubho Noboborsho with 10 pictures of himself standing in front of his government residence. The post received 120K reactions and 24K comments, and 5.6K shares to date.
In the sea of comments, most comments are that of well-wishers, and some exude overwhelming enthusiasm. For instance, one Muhammad Javed Ahmed’s comment reads, “Shuvo Noboborsho Premik Purush.”
Obaidul Quader didn’t answer this correspondent’s phone call. But when his Public Relations Officer, Shaikh Walid Faiej, was contacted and asked about the minister’s social media presence, he said the minister usually posts pictures of different political rallies, meetings and personal photos.
“The photographer takes the photo, and sir posts the pictures on Facebook on his own,” said Shaikh Walid Faiej.
Social media followers are always blown away by the stylish poses of the incumbent roads and bridges minister. The minister’s two separate Eid posts garnered 78K reactions on 2 May and 53K reactions on 8 May.
A new trend: Politicians and social media
Politicians in Bangladesh are becoming more inclined to use social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, in order to reach out to their voters, launch political campaigns as well as to observe the public’s views.
And I may go as far as to say, this new wave of political communication in Bangladesh is benefiting politicians as well as the common people.
A study by Dhaka University lecturer Md. Asaduzzaman of the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, titled “Social Media Usage By Bangladeshi Politicians: Digital Turn of Political Communication,” analysed the Facebook posts and shares (information, pictures and videos) of 10 selected politicians from the Awami League and BNP (senior, mid-level and student leaders) from February to April 2018.
The selected politicians were Mahbubul Alam Hanif, Dipu Moni, Barrister Biplab Barua, HM Bodiuzzaman Shohag, and Saifur Rahman Shohag from Awami League. On the other hand, Shamsuzzaman Dudu, Syed Emran Saleh Prince, Shohidul Islam Babul, Sultan Salahuddin Tuku and Anamul Haque Anam were selected from Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
During the three-month study period, Dipu Moni posted the highest number of 571 Facebook posts, while Mahbubul Alam Hanif posted 23 posts. 77% of Dipu Moni’s posts are political, while 82% of Mahbubul Alam Hanif’s posts are of the same nature.
On the other hand, BNP’s Syed Emran Saleh Prince posted the highest number of 119 posts, while Salahuddin Tuku made 31 posts. 92% of Syed Emran Saleh Prince’s posts are political, while all of Salahuddin Tuku’s posts are political.
The study also found that more than 90% of all the posts the politicians made were political in nature, while around 9% of the posts were of other types. Political posts with personal involvement (i.e. the account holder engages in a political campaign and then posts about it) outnumbered those with non-personal involvement (i.e. the account holder shares posts of other politicians) by 56.36% to 33.97%.
One decade back, Mustafa Jabbar, who is now the Post, Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister, opened a Twitter account. Then, Facebook was not this popular in Bangladesh. But soon, he lost control of the account, and he believes it might have been hacked.
The last time he used his Twitter account was 11 May 2010. The post was confusing. “I am in danger,” said his last Twitter post. He still believes that it might have been hacked.
Now, Mustafa Jabbar is an avid user of Facebook with a verified account. More than 2 lakh people follow his account. On average, he makes 10 Facebook posts daily, although he also has a habit of deleting his Facebook posts too.
In a single day, on 23 April, he made approximately 18 Facebook posts. The posts were either political or based on his personal life. In general, he shares news and posts photos of flowers.
One of his 23 April posts was a warning for those who sent Jabbar a friend request with names written in the Bangla alphabet and later changed it to the Roman alphabet [English alphabets] after the friend request was accepted.
“I routinely check my friend list and unfriend those who change their name back to the Roman alphabet,” wrote Mustafa Jabbar.
On that day, he also said that he unfriended 28 people on that day. He requested not to send him friend requests in the Roman alphabet, pointing out that he does not make friends with those who are against the Liberation War and who believe in communalism.
He said that politicians need to communicate with the common people, and Facebook, which is very popular in Bangladesh, is an easy way to do it.
“Twitter is not popular in Bangladesh, but Facebook is. We will use the platform which is popular; this is natural, ” said Mustafa Jabbar.
Jabbar also mentioned that he has other reasons to be on Facebook. “We have a responsibility, and I have to oversee the digital security issues. What I have noticed is that the number of Facebook and YouTube-related issues is higher in number. We have to monitor those,” said Mustafa Jabbar, adding, “We do not need to concentrate on Twitter as participation of [Bangladeshi] people on Twitter is very low. We do not see Twitter as a risk.”
Not politically motivated
State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury has been using Facebook since 2009. But he does not write or share posts on a regular basis. It all depends on his feelings. He has a Twitter account too. But he rarely uses his Twitter account.
One of his recent Facebook posts featured three black and white photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with some foreigners. Khalid wrote in the post, “The visit of the Father of Nation to Boston of America in 1956.”
Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury scrolls Facebook and writes posts when he feels like doing so. He said he can get exposed to many current issues through Facebook, particularly because people can give their reactions on Facebook openly, and they do so.
“You can get a good idea about the public’s views using Facebook because their views are unfiltered on Facebook. You will find many things on Facebook that you will not get on mass media,” said Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury.
And with unfiltered Facebook, he said, one can also understand how many people harbour a very unsavoury mindset in our society. One can also know how many people are living in a society with a progressive outlook and how many people are practical.
“You can also measure how people are blindly following things. There are all things, the good and the bad. The main thing is how we are looking at the issue,” said Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury.
But Khalid Mahmud Chowdury does not have any political agenda in mind when he writes his own Facebook posts. He does not write or share posts considering his voters. “I post the things which I feel good about. I post them when I think about it, or I feel love for the thing,” said the state minister.
“These [Facebook] posts are related to my thoughts and feelings,” said Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, who writes or shares posts himself. However, he said, as a politician, he cannot post any nonsense on his Facebook.
There are multiple Facebook accounts of the member of parliament, Mirza Azam. With his personal Facebook account, the last time he shared a post was on 20 June 2020. The post is about a rally where the then Jubo League President Jahangir Kabir Nanak was delivering a speech in a rally in 2006.
The post also included the photo of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (who was then the opposition leader), Jahangir Kabir Nanak and Jubo League general secretary Mirza Azam.
Mirza Azam said that he does not usually post on his personal Facebook account. He instead uses the platform mainly to see what others are saying. But he does not have the time to scroll on Facebook all day long.
“I use it all by myself, but I do not know how to login and log out. Often people tag me, and I get the scope of seeing their posts,” said Mirza Azam.
Regarding his other Facebook accounts, he said he does not know who runs them. But he said, sometimes in the past, one of his younger brothers used his personal Facebook account and posted some photos.
‘I am scared of Facebook’
However, not all politicians have embraced the new media for their political communication. Some senior politicians consciously shy away from using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to avoid unwanted hassles.
There is a Facebook account named Shajahan Khan, the former shipping minister popular with transport workers. Shajahan Khan said he does not use Facebook. He said that he even does not know if there is a Facebook account under his name. He did not have a Facebook when he was a minister either.
“I am scared of Facebook,” said Shajahan Khan laughingly. “Is there any guarantee that someone will not hack it and do something harmful? Why would I need to use Facebook?”
He does not even use any social media platform. “I have not yet become digital like all of you,” said Shajahan Khan. However, he said that he had heard that a young man had opened a Facebook account using his name.
“If I can get in contact with him, I will ask him what are you doing? If something wrong happens, the responsibility shall fall on my shoulders,” said Shajahan Khan.
‘Easiest way to reach out to the common people’
The main opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party Vice-Chairperson Shamsuzzaman Dudu, mainly uses Facebook to communicate with political followers. He also uses a Twitter account with more than 18,000 followers.
He writes and shares mainly political programmes, news links, greetings and photos he likes.
He said that there are multiple Facebook accounts under his name, and those are fake accounts. He has already filed a general diary with the police for this. He said the only account he runs now has around 11,000 followers. Once he had 57,000 followers, but the account got stolen.
He said that he is using Facebook to communicate with people, and through social media like Facebook and Twitter, a politician can reach out to millions of people.
“When we share a political speech on my Facebook, thousands of people can watch the video and come to know the message,” said Shamsuzzaman Dudu. “I can learn the public sentiment about any issue unfiltered on Facebook.”
“I think social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are the easiest way to reach out to the common people,” said Shamsuzzaman Dudu. He believes that there is more scope for knowing many things and letting people know through Facebook.
Additionally, there is a counter effect to these benefits. He believes that there are also lots of rumours spread on Facebook and Twitter, and social media users need to be aware of this disadvantage.
Young BNP leader Ishraque Hossain is very popular on the social media platform Facebook, where he has more than 2 million followers. Every day he writes and shares posts. Nearly all posts are of news, political programmes and news links of the political programmes.
On 24 April, he shared a post condemning naming the New Market Thana BNP’s Secretary General Haji Jahangir Hossain Patwary in the New Market clash case. There are two photos of Jahangir Hossain Patwary with him.
Md. Asaduzzaman said his study found that more and more political leaders in our country are using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter for mass communication. He said that politicians are getting benefits from social media in two ways.
“Many politicians stay in Dhaka and use Facebook to know what is happening in their local area. They do not need to go physically to the area,” said Md. Asaduzzaman, “Politicians can reach a larger number of people in a very short time.”
“Politicians can know what the public wants in their local area using social media,” said Md. Asaduzzaman, “At the same time, the common people can vent their frustration or give feedback that politicians can see directly. It is not always possible to reach an MP so easily.”
There is a negative side too. In many cases, leaders present themselves on social media in such a way that they know everything and have good political support in their local area. But that is not entirely true all the time, the lecturer cautioned.
Behind the scenes
The new media of political communication opened up a new door for the public relations industry. Around six years ago, some ministers, as well as city mayors, hired PR companies in Dhaka to professionally run their social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter.
“But now many politicians have set up their own teams to maintain Facebook and Twitter professionally,” said a PR company owner who has been in the industry for the last 20 years.
“If you look at the picture or video quality and the way they presented in their Facebook you will come to understand that they have the professional skills,” he added.
Another social media manager, on the condition of anonymity, said that he has been maintaining an influential state minister’s Facebook and Twitter accounts for the last four years. He said that each and every single Facebook or Twitter post is very sensitive for a politician, as a result, they try to employ someone who is very trusted.
However, some PR agency owners believe that as the national election draws near, some politicians may come to seek their service. The market will see an uptick in demand once there is a need for vigorous political campaigns.