While fake news played a large role in the US presidential election — smearing candidates, spinning conspiracies, sowing doubt, bolstering echo chambers — what is happening in South Sudan right now is on a whole different level.
Fake news might have tilted the US election, but in South Sudan, it’s essentially fueling a civil war that seems on the verge of genocide, according to a story published by BuzzFeed.
In both cases, social media is the conduit.
The war in South Sudan broke out along ethnic lines at the end of 2013, with the government-backed Dinka tribe fighting the anti-government Nuer tribe. Other groups are involved in the fighting as well, but these are the two main factions.
Just like in the US, the fake news circulating in South Sudan exploits the common tendency of confirmation bias — when people only seek out and believe in information that conforms to preexisting beliefs and prejudices.
It follows a simple and ferocious logic.
For example, an influential person aligned with the Dinka will write a message on social media saying that the rebels are slaughtering women and children, without any corroborating evidence, and that revenge must be sought. For his followers, it’s a compelling and infuriating narrative that makes sense, or just confirms a person’s worst fears. Rather than investigate to see if the information is true, fighters will run with the story and begin a counter-attack.
Or, in a more diabolical example, someone will find an image showing people killed in a different war, or from a long time ago, and say that it shows people recently murdered by the enemy. A logo from a legitimate news source is applied to the image to lend it credibility and then it spreads across social media.
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In South Sudan, versions of the above examples are circulating constantly, creating an atmosphere where false information bears the same weight as truth and truth that discredits false information is branded as suspicious and fake.
And as it spreads, divisions deepen, reprisals become more common, and the likelihood of ceasefires and reconciliations slip away.
The most severe effect of all this, of course, is the slaughter that takes place, the towns that are torn apart, and the lives that are ruined.
“[It] has the potential to create a Rwanda situation massively accelerated through the use of social media,” Stephen Kovats, a Berlin-based researcher tracking online hate speech in South Sudan, told Buzzfeed. “Linkages between social media, and word of mouth, and ending up with a gun in the hand or a machete, those are fairly clear.”
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the war, more than a million refugees have been created, and famine looms over parts of the country, according to the report.
“Conflict is a leading cause of hunger – each famine in the modern era has been characterized by conflict,” the director of the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization, José Graziano da Silva, and World Food Programme Executive Director Ertharin Cousin said today in a joint news release.
“[It] undermines food security in multiple ways: destroying crops, livestock and agricultural infrastructure, disrupting markets, causing displacement, creating fear and uncertainty over fulfilling future needs, damaging human capital and contributing to the spread of disease among others,” the statement said.
There seems to be no easy way to address this situation, as any party that tries to point out and correct false information can be labeled a purveyor of false information.
The UN, for example, has recently been branded untrustworthy and peacekeeping forces have come under a series of attacks.
In one particularly sinister bit of false news, a UN peacekeeping envoy was attacked and the battered and burned trucks were left on the side of the road. An image of the trucks then circulated, saying the UN had attacked those very trucks to kill South Sudanese troops.
In the US, fake news was often characterized as a nuisance, a blight on Facebook to be amended with stronger algorithms. But when truth becomes a vulnerable concept, capable of being claimed by anyone with an agenda, the spread of false news can quickly spiral out of control and cause terrible harm.