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Fake news, hate speech helped push South Sudan toward genocide - UN report

Fake news, hate speech helped push South Sudan toward genocide - UN reportSouth Sudan’s war has divided the country along ethnic lines, pitting followers of President Salva Kiir, who are mostly from the Dinka ethnic group, against fighters under command of former Vice President Riek Machar, who are mostly from the Nuer tribe. In the last year, militia from various other tribes in the country’s southern Equatoria region has also taken up arms against Kiir’s government.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed, often in bloody ethnic massacres, while more than a million refugees have fled the country and pockets of the country are teetering on the edge of famine.

In November, the UN warned that ethnic cleansing is underway and that the fighting could spill into genocide. Government and rebel leaders stand accused of orchestrating Facebook and Twitter campaigns inciting the violence.

“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,” a separate report by a UN panel of experts reads. Although the adult literacy rate in the country is around 30%, social media incitement has an outsized impact because it mainly comes from the South Sudanese diaspora.

The online networks groups are based abroad, are believed to be for-profit, prey on a general lack of media literacy, and specialise in setting up confusingly named websites to share false news and unverified images.

The Facebook “community pages” populated by members of a single tribe or political group create echo chambers of hate. There are also pages featuring multiple tribes or groups, which turn toxic as different sides clash, mirroring the real-life fighting among the tribes.

“They can post an inciting message: ‘You of x tribe, what are you waiting for? Such tribe are finishing us, let us go and revenge!’” said James Bidal, an activist with South Sudanese civil society group Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, which monitors online hate speech. “People read these messages and react on the ground.”

Besides direct calls for violence, spreading fake or exaggerated news has become a central strategy to turn South Sudanese against each other. A common tactic is to post images and videos from other African conflicts — pictures of bodies from the Rwanda genocide, for instance — while claiming they depict the massacre of a particular South Sudanese tribe. In some cases, the images are stamped with logos of known international news organisations.
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