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With #Shahbag, Bangladesh Protest Movement Blows Up on Twitter

BY Julia Wetherell | Wednesday, February 20 2013

A SNA graph of February 8 Twitter activity under #Shahbag (credit: Analyzing Social Network)

Protests in Bangladesh are ongoing this week in the aftermath of the February 5 ruling that sentenced politician Abdul Quader Mollah to life in prison.  Bangladeshis who believe Mollah should have received a death sentence for his role in carrying out atrocities during the 1971 civil war have taken to the streets to protest. The center of activity has been the Shahbag neighborhood in the capital city of Dhaka, an area that has now given its name to the online movement and discussion around the protests. 

A U.S.-based Bangladeshi researcher who has been posting a series of social network analysis insights over the past weeks spoke to techPresident about the evolving discussion of the movement on online media.  Built with NodeXL, these findings are based on Twitter activity under #shahbag, a hashtag that was determined by consensus by the third or fourth day of the protests. 

The researcher, who requested anonymity, told techPresident that, for many Bangladeshis, the Shahbag movement is a first foray onto Twitter, which is less popular than Facebook. They noticed this in the prevalence of faceless, “egg” user pictures in the SNA graphs: “I went to the data and realized they were very new users.  A lot of them didn’t know how to retweet.” The flock of new users unfamiliar with the platform meant that information sometimes flowed less effectively, but within a few days “other people were telling them how to use the retweet and mention features,” bringing the online movement together.    

A big incentive for Bangladeshis bringing the Shahbag movement onto Twitter has been the lack of significant coverage in the international media. Among the most popular mentions are @BBC and @CNN, as well as Aljazeera, which hosted a forum about Shahbag yesterday on its interactive @AJStream program.  The title of one BBC article was actually revised after many Twitter users posted objections to its bias. 

“It’s interesting to see how the media and Twitter are working together. They have some kind of dependency,” the Bangladeshi researcher says.  Many using the #shahbag tag have responded to the dearth of information with a flood of historical documents and other online sources, creating a centralized information hub for the human rights violations of the 1971 atrocities and other necessary background on the protest movement. 

Yet the #shahbag hashtag is not the exclusive domain of the protest supporters. Looking at the SNA data, “there at two very specific clusters – in one cluster, people showing solidarity, in another, people who are against the whole agenda.  These two groups are both very much active on Twitter.”

While the name itself is intertwined with the protest movement, on Twitter #shahbag additionally serves as a kind of space for diatribe between two factions; members of the opposition are also using the hashtag to put out their opinions. “If you look at the replies and mentions, you see the two groups are engaging with each other, trying to refute each other’s logic,” the researcher explains.  “The group which is opposing has their own newspaper, their own media, and they are sharing URLs from these medias.” 

This has been the case with the conversation about the death of prominent blogger and activist Ahmed Rajib Haider, who was brutally murdered late last week at the height of the protests, under still-unclear circumstances.  Some supporters of the movement have claimed that the Bangladeshi Jamaat-e-Islami party, of which Abdul Quader Mollah is the leader, targeted Haider for his open atheism; the opposition has spread a variety of accounts to the contrary, including that his girlfriend or friends were somehow implicated in the death. 

As the Shahbag movement enters its second week, Twitter has given Bangladeshis a handle on a huge amount of information, as well as platform to share developments with the international community.  The researcher behind these SNA findings emphasizes that they are still very much a work in progress, as is the Shahbag movement itself. 

 “We are still seeing what direction this movement will go,” they say.  “It will be interesting to see how the network evolves.” 

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.