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Social media used to fuel South Sudan's civil war

Supporters of leaders who have presided over atrocities attack each other online, spreading hatred and drawing deep wounds

30.09.2016
Social media used to fuel South Sudan's civil war

Juba

By Parach Mach

JUBA, South Sudan

South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, shares the rest of the world’s love of social media, but with one difference: Observers believe combatants have marshalled this digital tool to incite atrocities and massacres along ethnic lines in the nation’s two-and-a-half-year-old civil war.

Three-quarters of South Sudan’s young people have access to Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, and most have posted hate speech that may have in one way or another fueled the conflict, according to research by an advocacy group, the Juba-based Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO).

The NGO says many South Sudanese around the world have departed from the original purpose of social media and shifted it to sowing conflict.

Edmund Yakani, an executive director for CEPO, told Anadolu Agency that 60 percent of South Sudanese social media users use the platform to propagate hate speech that is essentially tribal and “incites violence.”

Yakani said a study found that supporters of South Sudanese leaders who have presided over war atrocities and massacres debated and attacked one another online, spreading hatred and distorting the social fabric, drawing deep wounds that will be long in healing.

“Sympathizers of the armed opposition and government supporters use social media to their advantage, spreading propaganda to whip up support or attract masses behind them,” Yakani said.

He added that many South Sudanese living abroad also stir people up in the country against each other to wreak havoc, as during clashes most warn their relatives, friends, and family members of potential threats either from the opposition, government, or one ethnic group against the other.

He argued that the recent fighting in Juba and subsequent movement of citizens into neighboring countries to seek refuge was fueled by the misuse of social media

“Based on interviews of South Sudanese refugees in Ayilo in northern Uganda, three out of five people fleed the country because of hearsay or division along ethnic lines,” he said.

In light of South Sudan’s political crisis, the research shows how radio stations (for instance, Bentiu FM, used by rebels to communicate hate speech), the Internet, and social media in particular were instrumental in aggravating the violence.

Sparking ethnic conflict

Senior political figures on opposing sides of the conflict as well have made use of social media and arguably manipulate community grievances to advance their political support.

Factional spokespersons deliver most of their propaganda through social media, and these often spark debates that are essentially ethnic.

One example concerns James Gadet Dak, the spokesperson of opposition leader Riek Machar, from the Nuer, South Sudan’s second-largest ethnic group. Dak claimed that Machar was lured to Juba’s Presidential Palace, for talks with President Salva Kiir, from South Sudan’s dominant Dinka ethnic group, to be arrested. This comment came before the clashes around the palace this July that left 300 soldiers dead.

This claim was shared widely on Facebook and spread rapidly. Dak later deleted the post and apologized for it, indicating that he had been misinformed. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done.

Another figure that uses social media is Gordon Buoy, South Sudan’s deputy ambassador to the United States, who has been on the forefront throughout the conflict from afar, sending messages to the streets of Juba. His fight against the opposition has largely been waged through social media, yet most of these messages are propaganda that arguably divide youth across the country and abroad.

On Dec. 13, 2014, Buoy posted the following on his official Facebook page: “This is not 1990s factional fighting. If Riek Machar wants war we will give him the real war that will involve aerial operation such as MIG jets, gunships including amphibious tanks. Riek and his rebel terrorists will see a fight in the dry season that they have never seen before. It is better if they accept peace and surrender to us.”

This was posted despite the fact that peace efforts were then underway in Ethiopia.

When contacted by Anadolu Agency, Buay dismissed the idea that his utterances as a diplomat could fuel war or sow lasting hatred among the people.

“It would be unfair if someone accuses me of negative propaganda, yet I am doing my role, through social media, am fighting enemies of peace that have taken arms against the legitimate government.

“I cherish and uphold the fact that sovereignty is vested in the people of South Sudan, President Salva Kiir and his entire government that were given the mandate by the people through elections, and it is my obligation to defend the constitution by all means,” he said.

Tweeting hate

Matthew LeRiche, assistant professor at Canada’s Memorial University and postdoctoral fellow at the London School of Economics, and an expert on peace-building who has worked in South Sudan, said in July that while Kiir, Machar, and other leaders were calling for ceasefire, restraint and calm, the war was raging both online and in the streets. The web warriors were busy tweeting and Facebooking hate.

“Societal tensions and cleavages in the security services, along with desperate economic crisis, have conspired to create all the requisite conditions of a relapse to war – all that was required was a spark, which the wrong rumor at the wrong time can trigger,” LeRiche said.

South Sudan lacks laws governing the proper use of social media, but Peter Longole Kwam, who chairs the Peace and Reconciliation Committee in the country’s Transitional Legislative Assembly, admitted there is a legal gap in the constitution on the use of social media but said efforts are underway to address the problem.

He said parliament is planning a study to explore the implications of hate speech on social media and how it fuels violence in the country and then see how its misuse can be prosecuted.

“I believe that policy will be designed to address hate speech and things that promote hatred among the people and there will be provisions in the Constitution that will be used to prosecute such acts,” Longole told Anadolu Agency.

The violence that began in December 2013 in South Sudan has affected many parts of the country and had a disproportionate impact in the capital Juba, and other major towns such as Bor, Bentiu, and Malakal that were devastated by violence.

Since the crisis began in December 2013, tens of thousands of people have been killed, and 2.4 million people displaced.


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