Bangladesh is experiencing a surge in information availability. There is a growing array of info-sources in the country. Social media platforms, in particular, are skyrocketing in popularity. They are the go-to info hub for Bangladeshis, spanning topics from politics to food. In 2022, Meta (the parent company of Facebook) highlighted Bangladesh as one of the top three countries to boost Facebook’s active users. But does this social media boom mirror the whole country? Who is joining the digital age and who is falling behind?

The Asia Foundation and BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) have collaborated to understand citizens’ perceptions on political governance, and other contemporary issues in Bangladesh. Two editions of the survey, 2019 and 2022, have been conducted. What makes these surveys interesting is that they give insights on the country’s media and internet landscape.

These are not just data points; they are windows into how the nation engages with these platforms. These insights can help policy-makers harness these digital arenas effectively. These platforms are tools to manoeuvre public awareness on critical issues.

Internet access

Internet use has been increasing in Bangladesh. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 37% people aged 18 and above in the country are internet users. The Asia Foundation’s surveys reveal that only 14% of respondents had access to the internet in 2016. The percentage of users has risen drastically since then: by 2022, it was 47%.

But there is a persistent gender divide in mobile internet use. Male respondents are more likely to get access to the internet (on mobiles) than females. Among males, 51% have internet access on their phones compared with 38% of females.[1] Meanwhile, the rural–urban divide is nominal: 47% of urban respondents and 43% of rural respondents use mobile internet.

The data highlights that Bangladesh’s digital divide is based on education and income.

Disaggregated by education, respondents with no formal education have the lowest percentage of mobile internet users (8%). By contrast, 72% of people with a university education are using the internet. Likewise, people with a higher income use the internet more: 30% of respondents earning (monthly) below BDT 10,000 (~USD 100) use the internet whereas 72% of respondents over BDT 50,000 (~USD 500) do so. The data highlights that Bangladesh’s digital divide is based on education and income.

Social media and mobile data usage

The survey data reveal that Facebook usage has increased in tandem with internet usage since 2017. In 2017, 14% of the population used the internet and 2% used Facebook. In 2022, internet users had risen to 38% and Facebook users to 32%. Meanwhile, the increase in Facebook usage is very clear. There was a 28% increase in Facebook users between 2019 and 2022 among bachelor’s degree holders. People with no formal education had only a 4% increase. The findings indicate that educated Bangladeshis are already ahead in internet and social media usage.

As expected, Bangladeshi youth are the drivers of this social media era. The data were disaggregated into five age groups, starting from 18 years and ranging to above 55 years. 72% of the the youngest age group, i.e. 18–25 years, uses the internet; exceeding the usage among all others. Moreover, 89% of this group’s internet users use Facebook, also the highest among age groups.

News media consumption trends

The two surveys, in 2019 and 2022, acquired data on the kind of media Bangladeshis use to access news. In the 2022 survey, the most common news source for Bangladeshis was private news channels, with 60% of respondents. BTV, the publicly owned channel, was the second most popular source, with 44%, followed by Facebook news at 28%. The most traditional news source, newspapers, was the least popular source, at 25%.

In the big picture, the data also show that, since 2019, audiences of private channels, newspapers and BTV have decreased. In contrast, the percentage of respondents who access news through Facebook has risen by 14% since 2019. Yet only 4% people use Facebook as their single source of news. The data corroborate that Facebook is a supplementary news platform to television and newspapers. Television news, both public and private, still has the most prevalent following, despite decreasing trends.

Policy implications

The Asia Foundation and BIGD survey findings unveil nuanced details of Bangladesh’s internet and media landscape. There has been a surge in internet users, especially from higher-income and higher education brackets. It is imperative to address the digital divide – a scenario whereby internet access remains a privilege for some and distant for others. Internet adoption across parities persists, especially among lower socioeconomic groups. Facebook is the most common social media source in Bangladesh. People who use Facebook are very likely to be exposed to the news through it.

Bangladesh mobile coverage and accessibility has increased significantly. However, there is still a large segment of the population without the internet. Internet usage is concentrated primarily among well-off people, which shows that digital divide is connected to economic situation.

Bangladesh should prioritise delivering internet access to underserved areas.

Bangladesh should prioritise delivering internet access to underserved areas. In 2022, BIGD conducted a survey on five subdistricts (locally known as upazilas) of Bangladesh that lagged behind on development indicators. The survey findings revealed that people from low-income areas like these lacked the infrastructure for internet access. Given Bangladesh’s rapidly expanding mobile and internet coverage, now is the time to focus on these small pockets where the internet is weak. Empowering grassroots infrastructure like union digital centres could be a useful policy drive.

Because low-income groups have less access, the internet needs to be made more affordable. The Bangladeshi government can establish more public Wi-Fi hotspots in urban and rural areas, making internet access more affordable for users. Mobile data packs can be more user-friendly by giving customers more choices.

Bringing more government services on online platforms can increase internet usage. Bangladesh has promoted mobile apps to deliver essential services but many of these still require offline activity. And many apps do not get updated after a while. This is a low-hanging fruit that can be picked easily.

There is information overload on the Bangladeshi internet. Broadly speaking, internet use literacy is now essential for Bangladeshi citizens. People need not only to be able to comprehend what information is accurate but also to learn how to validate it. With the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI), it is crucial for citizens and policy-makers alike to understand its potential and its consequences. A digitally literate population will generate a safe online space for Bangladesh.

 

[1] Please note that we asked about internet access on phones. There could be other methods (such as home computers and internet cafés) of accessing the internet. However, other surveys show that usage of these is very low.

 

Photo © Mahmud Hossain Opu

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Rafsanul Hoque is a Senior Research Associate at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), Dhaka. He is a policy researcher. He is the Co-Founder of Human Library Bangladesh. He was a Junior Research Associate at Development Research Initiative (dRi). He pursued his graduate studies in media and communication at Bowling Green State University, USA.
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Tanvir Ahmed Mozumder is a Research Coordinator at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), Dhaka. He is a data analyst. He was a Research Associate at the Global Development & Research Initiative (GDRI). He is the co-author of ‘Economics of Tobacco Taxation in Bangladesh’ report. He pursued his graduate studies in actuarial science at the University of Dhaka.
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Afsan Chowdhury is a Visiting Research Fellow at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), Dhaka. He is a historian, journalist and activist. He is also a faculty member at BRAC University. He was the Regional Director for South Asia at Panos Institute and Senior Adviser of Advocacy and Communication at BRAC and has worked as a media and communications expert at UNICEF. He was the developer of the ‘Sexwise’ series for the BBC. He was a Fellow at Oxford University, a Research Associate at York University, Canada, and an Oak Fellow on International Human Rights at Colby College, USS. He is an Ashoka Fellow and a Bangla Academy Award recipient. He pursued his graduate studies in history at the University of Dhaka.