Last month, fear spread that South Sudan’s government would collapse. The president had just removed the country’s powerful army chief of staff, Paul Malong, a hard-liner widely cast as the architect of some of the East African nation’s worst bouts of violence. The shake-up risked dividing the military in a country already mired in a chaotic three-year civil war largely divided along tribal lines. The conflict has produced ethnic cleansing, famine, and the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. After Malong’s removal, the army was put on high alert.
Then the fake news came.
On Facebook, pages known for spouting ethnic propaganda began posting updates with wild news reports. One particularly egregious offender, the pro-Malong “Aweil Eye” page, claimed that a militia loyal to the recently sacked army chief was withdrawing from all over South Sudan and assembling in the city of Aweil. It implied they were getting ready to fight the government. Another post linked to an article claiming South Sudanese President Salva Kiir had been shot dead. Both were completely false. Yet the posts, and ones like it, helped fuel online panic about a possible military coup.
Aweil Eye, which claims to be an entertainment news page, isn’t the only distributor of fake news in South Sudan, but it’s been one of the most prominent. Though it only has 5,000 followers, it receives an outsized amount of shares and likes on its page, which includes a mix of fake news, sensational rumors, propaganda, tabloid-style clickbait, hate speech, and memes. (I reached out to the administrators of Aweil Eye to ask about their editorial choices, but I didn’t receive a response.)
Fake news and other problematic digital content aren’t just issues confronting stable democratic nations like the U.S., the U.K., or France. And in countries embroiled in violent conflict like South Sudan, the stakes are much higher: Misinformation fuels bloodshed. It’s a particular concern in South Sudan, where some worry that ongoing ethnic conflict will erupt into genocide—perhaps with social media weaponized as a tool for mass atrocities.
Despite being one of the poorest and least-connected countries in the world, this kind of inflammatory digital sharing has already made a big impact in South Sudan. According to a United Nations report from late 2016, “Social media has been used by partisans on all sides, including some senior government officials, to exaggerate incidents, spread falsehoods and veiled threats, or post outright messages of incitement.”
Some of the main players are actually South Sudanese men and women living outside the country. Because many in the nation are illiterate or otherwise have difficulty accessing news, updates from the diaspora community—either directly from social media (usually Facebook) or via text messages and phone calls—are often taken at face value, says James Bidal, a peace activist in South Sudan. Roughly 20 percent of the country has access to the internet, according to one estimate. When I was there, I noticed that most people used their phones to access Facebook. There are no fiber-optic cables into the country, and the internet is accessible only through companies that use expensive satellite connections or routers that use mobile phone networks. It gives the diaspora’s comments a much greater impact on South Sudanese living inside the country.
In November 2016, I visited Yei, a southern city that has become a center of horrific ethnic killings. Tribal tension flared after an attack on a bus full of civilians the month before, and senior government officials accused rebel groups of attacking Dinka civilians. There are more than 60 tribes in South Sudan, and the Dinka ethnicity is the largest. Civilians who are “equatotian” are from a group of tribes that come from the Central, Eastern, or Western Equatatoria regions of the country.
In the bus attack, dozens of people were killed or injured. I visited victims at a hospital to investigate what had happened, but the evidence was inconclusive. One thing was clear, though: It sparked a rise in both offline and online hate speech.
“If government of President Salva Kiir don’t want to resolve this ongoing killing of civilians, then Dinka can revenge,” read a representative Facebook post from Oct. 10. A user below, Akok Anei, commented that it is a “plan by all equatorian” and that the only solution is for the Dinka youth to respond.
In Yei, ethnic cleansing turned the once-peaceful town into a kind of hell. Women told me stories of gang rape, and men described arbitrary arrests or executions at the hands of the government army, which is an overwhelmingly Dinka army. I visited one hut where at least seven bodies had been burned alive, many with their hands tied behind their backs in what local government officials, civilians, and relatives said was one of the most horrifying ethnic attacks in the area. Local government officials warned of genocide.
Although it’s nearly impossible to make a definitive connection, multiple sources linked the killings to animosity inflamed, at least in part, by online activity. The state’s information minister, Stephen Ladu, told me that fake news and hate speech on social media helped stoke the violence.
“The media, including social media, are being used to spread hatred and encourage ethnic polarization, and letters threatening specific groups have surfaced in the last month,” the U.N. secretary-general’s special adviser for the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, said during a visit to South Sudan in November. He also pointed out that the digital bigotry and incitement “have been accompanied by targeted killings and rape of members of particular ethnic groups, and by violent attacks against individuals or communities on the basis of their perceived political affiliation.”
It wasn’t just anecdotal observation, either. Late last year the nongovernmental organization PeaceTech Lab Africa found using social media tracking a spike in posts and memes containing words and phrases associated with South Sudanese hate speech during this period.
It shouldn’t be surprising that media is a tool to spread hatred. The Nazis harnessed newspapers, textbooks, music, movies, and rallies to sell their myth of a national community and justify murderous measures against those deemed outside of it. In 1990s Rwanda, radio became the medium of choice for hate propaganda. The infamous Hutu-supremacist station began broadcasting increasingly explicit anti-Tutsi messages, ending in calls to “exterminate the cockroaches” and reading off rosters of people to be killed and where to find them. “The graves are not yet full!” Today, many—from Russian-backed trolls to Islamic State recruiters to South Sudanese ethnic militias—have begun to tap into digital media’s power to stir antipathy.
What should be surprising, however, is that for all the pledges of “never again,” technology companies have yet to fully reckon with the knowledge that their platforms might be the next tools used to orchestrate mass atrocities. It’s Silicon Valley’s problem from hell. In South Sudan, Facebook relies on users to report incidents of hate speech when they see it in posts. It’s a reactive approach, and few users report hate speech in South Sudan, Theo Dolan, director of PeaceTech Lab Africa, told me.
To be sure, defining—let alone auto-flagging and removing—speech that’s so highly contextual can be difficult. To take a local example, MTN is the leading cellphone service in South Sudan. But it’s also a code word frequently used to identify people of the Dinka ethnicity. Most other examples you’ll find are implied or subjective, too, though local readers quickly understand the underlying context.
“It can’t be easy for tech companies to maintain social media platforms that are open to free expression while also providing a safe space for users,” Dolan said. “But I think they have an obligation to do more to address hate speech, especially in countries that are facing violent conflict.”
At times, Facebook has struggled to take down seemingly obvious examples of incitement. Daniel Van Oudenaren, a journalist formerly based in South Sudan, reported a man for posting that “Dinka should start massacaring (sic) the communities that targets Dinka on the highways,” according to a Twitter post. Facebook said the post did not go against community standards.
Though we can make appeals to Silicon Valley firms to take steps to prevent their services from being used as tools of violence, it’s important to remember that they’re just that—tools. South Sudan’s leaders are ultimately responsible for the apocalyptic condition of their country.
Although a free and vibrant media is one of the best ways to combat fake news and hate speech, the South Sudanese government has created a near blackout of independent journalism in the country. Unfriendly news outlets have been closed, journalists have been arrested and intimidated, and at least 20 correspondents have been denied accreditation, arresting and deporting journalists. (I was one of the reporters the government deported.) Recently, authorities released U.N. Radio Miraya reporter George Livio. He had spent nearly three years in jail without charges.
The absence of a free media in South Sudan only hinders the government’s ability to function. President Salva Kiir has been forced to address online rumors twice: in October after it was widely rumored he was dead and then after Malong defected.
After U.S. Sen. Chris Coons met with Kiir last month, the Democrat from Delaware recounted to me their conversation about traumatized South Sudanese in refugee camps and a town hit with famine.
Kiir responded that it was “propaganda,” Coons told me in an interview. “There is no widespread violence or suffering here, you’re being misled by the press.”
Reflecting his conversation with Kiir, the Delaware senator was frustrated.
“That level of fantasy, or willful denial of really hard circumstances, it’s pretty hard to take.”
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.