Social Media fuels war in a country on the brink of genocide.
The Lexicon is the first to identify the terms used to incite violence.
There are words that kill. In the case of South Sudan, social media has emerged as a new source of ethno-political conflict. According to the United Nations and international experts, South Sudan is at the brink of genocide and has been plagued with famine throughout the region this year. Ethnic conflict has erupted since December 2013 amongst parties that are aligned with President Salva Kiir of the Dinka tribe, against those aligned with Former Vice President Riek Machar, of the Nuer tribe. Although South Sudan is among the world’s least developed countries and about 70% of its population is illiterate, hate speech and fake news disseminates through the internet and spreads violence to regions that don’t even have electricity. Local and international organizations have responded to the gravity of situation through their work. One result of this collective effort is the Lexicon of Hate Speech Terms which is the first of its kind to identify the vocabulary used to incite violence of social media.
“Until now, we only searched for words like kill, Dinka and Nuer to identify hate speech in social media. Now we can turn to new vocabulary and hashtags and follow their path from the diaspora to South Sudan,” explains Theo Dolan, the Director of PeaceTech Lab Africa and spokesperson for the lexicon. This NGO supported by the United States Institute of Peace has an office in Nairobi (Kenya) and has worked with South Sudanese in-country and in different parts of the world to define each expression, place it into social and political context, and suggest respectful alternatives. The project has three objectives: help organizations that fight hate speech identify terms and counter them; spread awareness amongst social media users about the danger of provocative language; and to promote the use of neutral words that allow the South Sudanese to express their frustration without undermining the dialogue. Based on this lexicon, PeaceTech Lab has released maps showing the common platforms used to spread hate speech, the influential users that incite conflict, and visualizations to track the use of provocative language on social media. These resources are accessible to international organizations to help with decision making. “Understanding and mapping hate speech helps us predict and alert on potential violence,” adds Dolan.
The relationship between social media and conflict in South Sudan isn’t trivial. Proof lies in the UN Security Council’s Peace Mission mandate to, “follow, investigate, and report hate speech incidents.” A group of UNSC experts affirmed in a November report that, “individuals from different areas of the conflict, including high government officials, have used social media for exaggerating incidents, spreading lies and covert threats, or publishing provocative messages.”
Among the most frequently used hate speech terms is dor, used by some Dinka people which labels other tribes as their slaves and refers back to the time when Arab traffickers would subjugate their prisoners with whippings while shouting “Dor!” (Move!) Another key word is MTN, which refers to the slogan of this telecommunications company- everywhere you go- to label the Dinka as invaders of territory belonging to other ethnicities. “This word stirs fear by exaggerating the number and location of the Dinka in South Sudan. It’s a coded, action-oriented word: An MTN with ‘no service available’ may mean a Dinka who’s unarmed and therefore may be attacked,” describes the lexicon. For Dolan, this word illustrates the effect that online aggression can have over a region. His project reports that the term appeared in social media at the start of 2016, by the end of the year they verified the term was being used during ambushes. “The assailants stopped vehicles on major roads and would ask the driver if they were carrying any MTN. If any were present, they would pull them out of their seat and attack,” until they were killed, he explains.
From Social Media to the Real World…
The big question is where these provocations originate from and how are they disseminated to illiterate people without internet access. Although leaders of the parties in conflict and their followers spread hate with false information and hateful speeches on websites and conventional methods in South Sudan, much of the hate speech comes from the diaspora, among the thousands of South Sudanese who have fled the waves of violence at home and now live in countries like Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The war against Sudan that ended with the south’s independence in 2011, for example, is considered the longest civil war in the continent.
Hate speech spreads quickly through personal networks: videos, messages, and updates are sent within a few hours from the diaspora in Australia to the United States and reach South Sudan through social media, SMS or a simple telephone call. Whoever receives this news jumps on a moto-taxi to visit relatives in a remote village. Here is where the problem arises: “The South Sudanese, especially in remote areas, trust any information they receive from the diaspora. They completely believe their words and act in response,” explains James Bidal from Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), a community organization that combats hate on social media and collaborated with the PeaceTech Lab for the lexicon.
Stephan Kovats, from the Berlin organization r0g_agency for open culture, supports #Defyhatenow’s efforts to combat hate speech in South Sudan: “Social media is a perfect way to incite violence, especially in areas with such low literacy rates. Fear, hysteria, and rumors can spread more quickly due to the lack of true and verifiable information.” The situation is worsened by the lack of free press, insecurity and poor infrastructure, which prevents local journalists from accessing areas of contest. “In this context, fake news and political Facebook groups that support a single faction will proliferate,” alerts #Defyhatenow. They add, “In some parts of the country, fake news is the only news.” This includes images from previous massacres -like the genocide in Rwanda- that are labeled as part of the current conflict in South Sudan. The perpetrators are relatively wealthy and established youth that react to Internet forums without weighing the consequences of their words. In both cases, the work of the various organizations is key to stop problematic trends that are growing within and outside of the country.
This includes images from previous massacres -like the genocide in Rwanda- that are labeled as part of the current conflict in South Sudan. The perpetrators are relatively wealthy and established youth that react to Internet forums without weighing the consequences of their words. In both cases, the work of the various organizations is key to stop problematic trends that are growing within and outside of the country.
In collaboration with local entities, r0g_agency focuses on fostering awareness about the dangers of hate speech on and off screens; they educate on the constructive and critical use of media and social media to create Internet users that can identify and counter provocations. “One objective is to fill South Sudanese social media with positive influences rather than opening the space for actors of conflict,” explains Kovats. In response, they have local partnerships dedicated to spreading content that promotes peace on social media and teaching other users to do the same. This strategy isn’t trivial.
According to a report by the PeaceTech Lab Africa, the frequent use of the word coward to refer to communities in South Sudan –those accused of not contributing in the war of independence- has humiliated them and motivated them to take up arms to show their worth, such as through attacks on MTN roadways. “The term has played a significant role with regards to instigating conflict through different means. Many users of social media state that the government only negotiates with armed groups, not with cowards that ask for dialogue.” In October of 2016, three political movements formed –not necessarily peaceful- considered to be a direct response to the use of this term, states the document.
Among the organizations that collaborate to bring the issue to light is the South Sudanese CEPO, which examines social media and media, brings journalists together and works with legislators, just like the #Anataban initiative of local artists, directed toward youth via Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube through music, art and street theatre. “Youth are crucial for promoting both peace and violence: suppose the majority of the population perpetrates a large portion of the regional aggression,” and are the primary users of social media, remarks the co-founder of #Anataban, Jacob Bul. According to him, a major obstacle for fighting instigations on social media is the lack of legislation that removes impunity from perpetrators, be wherever they may be. The challenges don’t stop there.
Challenges and Priorities
It is complicated to analyze hate speech because the terms are constantly evolving and words may have roots in any of the 60 plus languages in the country. As a result, it is difficult to hold online workshops given the poor quality of internet in South Sudan; the complexity of reaching a diaspora spread throughout the world, and the fact that users do not report the majority of offensive messages to administrators of social media and online media. If that were not enough, fake news and content loaded with negative stereotypes emerges in the real world creating a vicious cycle that is difficult to stop. Even when the diaspora calls relatives in South Sudan to verify something they read or saw, it can backfire: they are not only verifying the information, they are also unintentionally spreading the news with irreversible effects. The various organizations call for solid mechanisms to monitor and report provocations, a system for preemptive alerts that identifies threats and can prevent violent acts. “The cost of inaction could be the first genocide induced by social media,” warns Kovats of r0g_agency.
Twenty-three years after the genocide in Rwanda, Radio Mille Collines’ warnings about the massacre continue to resonate. The internet has turned into a new form of warfare with fake and provocative messages as weapons for fueling divisions and manipulating those who are unable question them. South Sudan’s future depends on the national dialogue in and out of social media.