Anti-Social Media

Anti-Social Networks
Anti-Social Networks

Social media can be an angry and hate filled place. Add ethnically charged tension and an information deficit, and you have a recipe for disaster.

A quote on social media reads:

“The dark side of social media is that, within seconds, anything can be blown out of proportion and taken out of context. And it’s very difficult not to get swept up in it all.”

It begs the question. Is social media helping to destabilize South Sudan?

It’s worth considering the nature of news that is being fed to people in our villages, fields and cattle camps. To the people who can’t read or can’t access news sources independently. The people who only receive second or third hand information. These are the people who will make or break a resolution to any crisis. These are the people who will answer a summons, pick up a gun, commit atrocities and unwittingly sacrifice their lives without ever truly understanding why. Who is informing their appreciation of a crisis situation? What is clear is that it doesn’t really matter what the few intellectuals understand, only what the majority are led to believe.

The government uses state television and other media to promote itself in a favourable light whilst vilify its opposition. It carefully regulates the information presented to citizens and falls silent on issues that are inconvenient or inconsistent with its narrative, irrespective of the detrimental affect that an information vacuum may have. It also maintains a stranglehold on alternative sources of news. This has contributed immeasurably to the creation of an unmanageable ecosystem for the distribution of news to the local level – with social media playing a prominent, although not singular, role. It leaves our fellow citizens (and worryingly even some in positions of authority) vulnerable to manipulation by persons who have something to gain from divisiveness.

At a debate in Juba about the role of journalistic reporting on the conflict, Jok Madut Jok, a co-founder of the Sudd Institute, lamented that:

“What [illiterate people] access is the interpretation of what has been heard. What they access is what [those] who have access to the few mobile phones that are 3G enabled can access on Twitter and on Facebook.”

This is incredibly worrying. Social media has never been the ideal environment for reasoned discourse. As a social media commentator noted:

“The more passionate and argumentative I get the more followers and friends I make online.”

Comments, articles and images that elicit an emotional response are more likely to be shared than those that elicit no emotional response. And the emotion that has been shown to most trigger sharing on social media is ANGER. Even worse, where an equally angry counter-argument develops against a post, then the two (working in tandem) reach more people, draw in more commentators and stay active in social circles for a longer period of time.

This is not to say all social media discourse is negative. But it must be acknowledged that the likelihood for negative discourse is greater on the very medium (i.e. social media) that is most likely to reach South Sudanese who don’t have access to alternative and more nuanced discussions of a given issue.

South Sudan is caught in a maelstrom of conflicting narratives. Conspiracy theories and misinformation have crept into these narratives to the extent that for many citizens they have now achieved the status of received wisdom.

A contemporary example of this is the enfolding situation in Western Equatoria State, which to all intents and purposes began with a dispute between pastoralists and indigenous farmers over the destruction of crops by free roaming cattle. The situation gradually escalated resulting in the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, fleeing violence in what had been a peaceful and productive region.

Allegations of anti-Dinka hate speech attributed to Western Equatoria State Governor, Joseph Bakasoro, have resurfaced on social media since the outbreak of violence in Yambio in July/August 2015. These are being used as proof of the Governor’s ethnic animosity towards citizens from the Dinka community. The narrative had evolved to allege that Bakasoro is master minding the local militia (known as the arrow boys) in operations against the local SPLA division. There have been calls from members of the Dinka community on social media to have Bakasoro replaced due to his ethnically prejudiced inclinations and anti-government rhetoric – with some even going as far as demanding his violent removal and for a counter insurgency campaign to be conducted in Western Equatoria to cleanse it of rebels. All this despite repeated statements made by Governor Bakasoro explaining that he had been misquoted and clarifying his comments.

Similarly, among Equatorians, a counter narrative has emerged whereby Dinka cattle herders, having abused the hospitality of the locals and refused to leave the area (as required by Presidential decree) solicited support from predominantly Dinka SPLA units based locally. These units (now reinforced by fresh units and Dinka militia dispatched from Juba) indiscriminately attacked civilians, scorched towns and kidnapped youth. Allegations of a Dinka conspiracy to destabilise the state as a pretext to remove the State Governor and replace him with someone less willing to stand up against Dinka colonisation has gained traction. The violence in Yambio is perceived as proof of a Dinka dominated central government sponsoring attempts to shatter the peace.

It is easy to see how each narrative readily feeds the other. Sadly, the situation in Yambio is serious with many reported deaths. State media is proving itself incapable of keeping up with events, and with the SPLA’s often heavy handed response to crisis situations, the likelihood for the escalation of violence increases. Instability in Equatoria is something South Sudan can ill afford. Restraint is urgently required.

It is ironic that in a country with internet penetration at only 7 per 100 persons, South Sudan can still be affected by what happens in cyberspace. This places a heavy burden of responsibility for those who are lucky enough to be connected, especially the hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese living in Diaspora.

Although I don’t agree with the government’s self-defeating and unenforceable attempts to control the flow of information, I would argue that an appreciation of social media’s capacity to add fuel to volatile situations needs to be communicated through a coordinated international outreach initiative.

In a 2012 Council of Europe sponsored conference on hate speech, a recurring theme with resonance to the South Sudanese context developed:

  • Individuals needed to be equipped with those skills and habits to address critically the ‘truth claims’ that confront them.
  • Hate speech must be challenged in a manner not confined to rational argument.

Myth-busting, however important, is not enough. There is a need to appeal to passion, but in a contrasting, idealistic way and with a different cadence.

If you have a suitable internet connection, this YouTube video is well worth watching.