Fake News is not just a problem for citizens in the US. Disinformation on social media has been blamed for fueling violence in conflict zones all over the world.
During his recent appearance before US Congress, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that hate speech can be difficult to identify, and that it is a concern for both his company and for a global society. The danger of hate speech online has been particularity noted in South Sudan, where observers believe it has contributed to the ongoing civil war there.
Now a civil conflict resolution project called #defyhatenow has begun training South Sudanese youth to recognize and combat online hate speech, both in the capital city of Juba and also in Uganda, where many South Sudanese have been forced to flee. The initiative, supported the German Federal Foreign Office, includes a campaign called #ThinkB4UClick, which involves IT training sessions that focus on how to identify hate speech in social media, as well countering hate speech online. Peace News spoke with organizers and participants in Uganda about the issue, and what can be done about it.
"This thing of inciting violence with social media - it's real,” said #defyhatenow trainer Otim Francis. “It has happened in several occasions in South Sudan. This is a campaign aimed at raising awareness on the misuse of social media."
"We can use it for good instead of using it for bad. We learn to verify the information before we pass it on."
"I think generally we are not trying to use the social media constructively, for good purposes,” said participant Samuel Sebit Emmanuel. “So this training is very very important."
"With such training's done on a regular basis we are able to combat [misinformation] and we are able to change the mindset."
The training looked at issues such as prejudice awareness, identifying reliable sources, online peacebuilding, and constructive ways to deal with hate speech. There's a critical line however, between freedom of expression and hate speech, which is something the team also cover in their training.
"We don't stop - you have your choice, your opinions, to say things - we respect that. There's always a freedom of expression for anyone, but how do you use that opportunity that has been given to you? Do you use it correctly or do you use it to incite violence?"
To help campaigns like #defyhatenow monitor and counter hate speech online, PeaceTech Lab have been tracking hate speech in South Sudan, and have come out with a lexicon of terms that are likely to incite violence.
"One of those terms is MTN,” said Theo Dolan from PeaceTech Lab, “Which is a mobile phone company in South Sudan - and elsewhere in Africa - and MTN was used as a derogatory reference to the Dinka tribe, basically referencing allegations that they're land-grabbers and have a disproportionate share of political influence in South Sudan."
"That's what we want to build on with our work going forward,” Mr Dolan said, “How do we identify the language involved, and understand the connection between online and offline, and then how can we create a mechanism for early response?"
Participants told us that another one of the reasons they signed up to #defyhatenow's training was to change the perception of South Sudanese themselves, and that they aim to show the world that people on the ground are working towards solutions and are building unity between divided groups.
"Many people have spoken a lot of things about us, about South Sudan, which are really bad,” said Mr Emmanuel, “But we said 'it's time for us to re-write the narrative' and have something better for South Sudan."