Stories from the Field: From TV Bans to Facebook Groups—the Spectrum of Digital Literacy in Bangladesh

Shamael Ahmed, Research Associate at the Research, Policy and Governance (RPG) team at BIGD, discusses the stark contrast in the perception of digital technology between two neighbouring villages in Sylhet. 

“তারা আইসা টিভি ভাইংগা দিয়া যামু (They’ll come and break the TV)” – said one of the villagers of Jointapur, while narrating to us the story of a Pir (a holy man) who had banned televisions from their village. Amidst the unwelcoming and questioning eyes, we met a family who welcomed us with this fascinating story. The Pir in question had banned televisions to stop the villagers from listening to music and getting influenced by such “culture.” Interestingly, it has been years since the Pir had passed away – but the ban is strictly in place in the village, even to this day. Members of the local mosque have been vigilantly monitoring the ban, penalizing villagers with extreme consequences like vandalizing televisions if caught.

Jointapur was one of the many villages that we, a team of young researchers from BIGD, visited on an expedition towards gaining knowledge and field experience. We headed towards the outskirts of Sylhet with the objective of understanding the level of digital literacy among the villagers. In addition to our primary goal, we came across a few more interesting findings.

From our visit we realized that the village of Jointapur had a very conservative outlook. People were taught, and in extreme cases, forced to believe that digital devices such as televisions were corrupt. This negative connotation was introduced to stop villagers from activities such as listening to music or watching movies and so on. Although access to TVs could be controlled, the invasion of mobile phones, however, was inevitable. The device is a necessity in today’s world, and hence, its use was prevalent in the village. Moreover, the villagers were using it for entertainment purposes, but in secret, as shared by our narrator.

Unfortunately, we were able to converse with only one of the families of Jointapur. Others gave us questioning and disapproving looks, and to avoid unwanted intrusion, we visited another village nearby. Interestingly, there was a stark difference between this village and Jointapur; in terms of perception and practice of using digital devices. The conservative attitude was noticeably less here, people were much friendlier and easier to interact with. We had the opportunity to have a chat with a local resident in his early 20s, who was using Facebook to elevate his poultry business. He revealed that he was part of a Facebook group where business owners shared pictures and videos of their poultry farms, and even had discussions regarding the market prices. According to the young fellow, this group had not only helped him stay updated with the market but also encouraged him to expand his business. Another interesting point that he shared was that the villagers were using advanced tools such as ‘Google Voice’ to serve their necessity. Not everyone in the village had the literacy to use the internet or have discussions in Facebook groups. Hence they found an alternative medium – utilizing Google Voice – to type out their thoughts for them.

The differences between the two neighbouring villages was startling, to say the least, with completely opposite perceptions of technology and digital devices. One enforced a suspicious attitude towards digital devices, while the other had a very optimistic attitude towards them. However, in spite of these difference, both villages had the common thread of innovative use of technology and the internet to support their way of life. Jointapur’s ban on television and limit to basic entertainment drove the villagers to use mobile phones as a substitute for televisions. In the second village, people made smart use of their mobile phones despite with the barrier of illiteracy.

We can see that even with very different lifestyles and perceptions across communities in Bangladesh, the use of digital technology is rising. People are finding their own unique ways of being digitally literate, are utilizing digital technologies in interesting ways to benefit their lifestyles.

“Stories from the Field” is an ongoing series where members of the BIGD team reflect on their experiences conducting research on-ground.

Photo : BIGD researcher in conversation with the residents of a village in Sylhet.