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Abiol Lual Deng

Facts or Rumors?

Social media plays a huge role in African conflict zones. It offers ways for evading media restrictions, but also bears dangers inherent in its use.

Open access to data during a conflict is a matter of life or death.

“Make sure you don’t choose a house near the television or radio station!” That’s the sage advice my South Sudanese father gave me a few years ago when I found myself house hunting in Chad. My father, who lived through many coups d’état in his years in the former Sudan, was of course referring to the tendency of those looking to seize power in Africa (and elsewhere) to quickly attempt to control communications. Millions in Africa can recall the sudden interruption of a soccer match on the radio or a film on the television by the announcement of a regime change. In 2016, Africa remains the continent with the most coups d’état in the contemporary era, although now a putsch is as equally likely to occur on Twitter as it is on television. Yet, despite shifts in technology and the manner in which Africans consume data, the usual dynamics of conflict remain: armed actors attempt to limit information in order to maintain control, while civilian populations attempt to access information to stay safe. Information on where armed actors are operating, where to obtain humanitarian assistance, and where and how to seek refuge are fundamental for populations affected by conflict. Open access to data during a conflict becomes a matter of life or death. All too often though, this information is not accessible. Things however are changing. The rise in mobile technology, particularly smartphones, is rapidly shifting how Africans receive and transmit information, including in conflict zones.

…large and often politically active African diasporas in the West actively relay information to family members back home.

In a short amount of time, the proliferation of mobile phone networks has revolutionized sub-Saharan Africa, transforming all aspects of life from the way Africans communicate, access information, bank, and pay for goods or services. This technology also impacts the way war is waged and how people stay safe. African information and communications technology (ICT) has used mobile technology, and mobile phone networks in particular, to bypass the landline phase and “leapfrog” into the digital age. Currently, the majority of adults have access to mobile phones or to someone with a mobile phone in close proximity. Africans therefore now widely receive, process and disseminate data via mobile devices, a marked shift from just twenty years ago when radio, communal televisions, and person-to-person contact would have been the principle source of information for most. Additionally, in countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, sizable minorities have access to smartphones and the trend is on the rise continent-wide. Considering the relatively low state of press freedom and government transparency in many African countries, access to mobile technology and the Internet helps to provide populations with reliable sources of information, which becomes primordial in conflict. Additionally, those without Internet frequently receive pertinent information via phone or SMS from family or friends in other villages, cities or countries who are able to procure less biased/unbiased sources of information. Large and often politically active African diasporas in the West are often key among those who actively relay information to citizens back home.

…the total rate of tweets from Egypt (…) about political change in that country ballooned from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day.

Over 120 million people, roughly 10% of Africans, use social media, and more than 90% of these access social media via their mobile devices. While social media began as a “social” phenomenon in many ways, particularly Facebook, which started off at elite universities in the United States in 2004, it is now a key and crucial form of “media,” especially in the industrial world and for youth everywhere. The North African “Arab Spring” revolts in Tunisia and Egypt (2010-2011) were heavily influenced by the use of social media and by the unique forms of citizen journalism and photojournalism that arose out of these events. A study conducted by the University of Washington found that “during the week before Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, for example, the total rate of tweets from Egypt — and around the world — about political change in that country ballooned from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day.” Videos featuring protests and political commentary went viral – the top 23 videos received nearly 5.5 million views, according to the study. Meanwhile, the amount of content produced online by opposition groups, on Facebook and political blogs, increased dramatically at a time when television was being heavily censored by the regime. These events were key in reforming the way many in the traditional media, activists, human rights researchers, politicians and others saw the role of social media. Notably, Al Jazeera, which experienced difficulties reporting and broadcasting during the Egyptian uprising against Mubarak, relied heavily on individual and activist social media platforms and posts for up-to-date news. In May 2011, the network launched their popular program The Stream, which is focused on using social media audience participation to discuss major issues, including conflicts in Africa and elsewhere.

…I checked my tablet and scrolled to Facebook where I began to see numerous reports of heavy fighting in Juba.

In South Sudan, the world’s newest country, social media, which is widely used by the over two million people in the diaspora (compared to a population of nine million in the country itself), is essentially a source of news and information. It is also employed to influence news and events, as it has been elsewhere but with arguably more direct consequences in a country in which local media is under several constraints. Many young South Sudanese are involved in national and ethnic-specific groups on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, both inside and outside the country. As a result, when ethnic and politically motivated conflict broke out on December 13, 2013, South Sudanese abroad and at home turned to social media both for information and to shape the emerging narratives. Others also used data garnered through links or posts on social media to relay events to relatives inside the country via phone. (The phone lines were not cut immediately during the conflict, which has otherwise often been the case).

Only later did news outlets begin reporting on the fighting, often adding links on their social media platforms to critical maps identifying the locales affected by the crisis.

On December 13, 2013, I happened to find myself in Juba, South Sudan. After spending a quiet day on the banks of the White Nile, I checked my tablet and scrolled to Facebook where I began to see numerous reports of heavy fighting in Juba. I was perplexed as I hadn’t heard any fighting. Bit by bit, the number of posts on Facebook and Twitter reporting fighting increased. By the time the skirmishes had moved in to the neighborhood I was in, my family and I were aware of the extent of most of the violence. Only later did news outlets begin reporting on the fighting, often adding links on their social media platforms to critical maps identifying the locales affected by the crisis. This collaboration between citizen journalism and traditional journalism via social media was highly important to me. Not only did I search for information and inform others on the conflict, I also was able to figure out how to stay safe. As a dual citizen of the United States, I was in contact with the Embassy and carefully followed the announcements posted on social media by the US Embassy in Juba in order to ascertain the level of danger I was in as I did not know much of the situation outside of the city. It was through the Embassy’s Facebook page that I was eventually notified of the evacuation of American citizens.

Once I left Juba and had posted on Facebook that I was safe in Nairobi, to the relief of many of my family and friends, I continued to use social media to monitor the situation and alert those relatives left behind. Relatively quickly though, I began to notice another disturbing trend emerge as a number of people began spreading rumors through Facebook and Twitter. Some even went so far as to modify images and logos to pass false and inflammatory information off as “official” documents from the UN and various organizations. Further, photos from different conflicts in Africa were copied and used by actors claiming these events proved massacres that had been committed by whichever side of the conflict they opposed. While most of the people behind this were outside of the country, the impact was felt directly inside the country. As recently as July 2014, a rumor spread online that the government was planning to shoot on spot anyone violating the curfew marred the Independence Day celebrations throughout Juba. As usual, worried South Sudanese in major cities or in the diaspora phoned their relatives and friends in the country and shared the information they had seen online (whether false or real). As such, in a matter of months, the same platforms that had kept people informed and safe at first were being used by those invested in the conflict to engage in hate and dangerous speech.

…those seeking to disseminate biased or false information, particularly on social media, are often able to reach an audience.

The promise and danger of social media are both high in Africa. Perhaps because press freedom and transparency are often low, particularly in conflict zones, open data in Africa is largely obtained or relayed from external sources via social media. This crucial information can help keep civilians safe in conflict as well as inform humanitarian actors who seek to aid populations in danger. Nonetheless, because traditional media is often suppressed or unreliable in conflict, those seeking to disseminate biased or false information, particularly on social media, are often able to reach an audience. Thus, while open data is very important in conflict zones and can be widely disseminated through social media, the danger is that actors in conflicts can and do use social media to falsify data, which they often try to pass off as legitimate, open-source data. In Africa, the revolution is not only being televised, it is being tweeted. Yet in many ways this trend is positive. Increasing initiatives which seek to offer vetted and trusted open-data sources in combination with greater Internet access, particularly via smartphones, will help to keep African civilians informed and safe in future conflicts.

Photo: “Secure deletion, mobile edition, the office, Hackney, London, UK” by Cory Doctorow
2015 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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