South Sudan

Managing Misinformation to Build Peace in South Sudan

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by John Green

In 2011, two years after gaining independence, South Sudan plunged into a disastrous civil war that was marked by ethnic massacres, sexual violence that included children as its victims, the recruitment of child soldiers, and other atrocities that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions leading to one of the biggest refugee crises in recent history. On 21 February 2020, the country’s warring sides formed a transitional coalition government under the terms of the revitalized peace agreement which had ended five years of war. This new government is intended to see the country through the next general election (the date of which is currently uncertain due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic), which is a significant step towards forging sustainable peace in the world’s youngest nation. Despite this bold step, South Sudan has a precedent for breached ceasefires and treaties, which inevitably casts a shadow of doubt as to whether the present peace pact will offer a lasting solution to the country’s longstanding problems.

As with conflicts in many African countries, the war in South Sudan has been attributed to a wide range of causes such as competition over natural resources (especially oil), the availability of weapons, violations of ceasefire agreements, a lack of commitment to ending the conflict, military interference in politics, marginalization of certain ethnic groups, corruption, and youth unemployment. The Sentinel Project identified hate speech, rumours, misinformation, and disinformation circulating both online and offline as complex drivers of conflict in South Sudan with the ripple effect of also raising tensions and mistrust among South Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries like Kenya and Uganda. In October 2016, the UN warned of increasing violence in South Sudan following rumours that had been circulating on social media – spreading as far as Uganda – over the ill health and death of President Salva Kiir. Due to the rising tensions caused by these rumours, the government deployed more security officers on the streets of Juba and the minister of information had to publicly dismiss the claims in order to quell tensions.

The current state of affairs under the new government presents fertile ground for rumours, misinformation, and disinformation to thrive as most of the information regarding the terms in the revitalized peace agreement remain at the high level. This leaves out millions of citizens who must speculate as they consume verified and unverified information from third parties, hearsay, rumours, and what some suspect as being propaganda. The situation is even worse for the refugees in neighbouring countries who face the tough decision about whether they should return home or remain in the relatively safe camps. Some of them have to make this decision while remembering traumatizing past attempts to return home which were interrupted by renewed fighting that made them refugees all over again. Many such people are concerned about issues such as their personal security, the availability of land and property that they left behind during the crisis, and the government’s commitment to justice and reconciliation. It’s not clear to many how these matters will be handled and if they are left unaddressed the country is likely to plunge back into violence.

The Sentinel Project’s Hagiga Wahid (Juba Arabic for “One Truth”) project aims to help solve this problem by filling the information gap through an established interactive information and communications technology (ICT) system which engages South Sudanese citizens in monitoring, verifying, and countering the spread of rumours and misinformation that could inflame intercommunal tensions. This project is based on the Sentinel Project’s successful Una Hakika project in Kenya, which has demonstrated the potential for rumours to contribute to the atmosphere of distrust, fear, and hatred which enable violence as well as the potential for intelligent ICT usage to significantly mitigate this effect. Hagiga Wahid focuses on dispelling malicious rumours circulating in South Sudan which have the potential to exacerbate intercommunal tensions and lead to violence. These rumours may originate either within South Sudan or abroad and concern events in the country, among South Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries, or the broader diaspora.

How it works

People who want to participate in Hagiga Wahid can join the free SMS service by subscribing to a short code which asks for their basic information such as their age, sex, and location. Names are not recorded except for in the case of official project volunteers who are already publicly known. The system automatically sorts individual subscribers into contact groups based on their locations, which is particularly important at later stages because it enables geographically targeted responses to individual rumours.

Rumour reporting – After joining, participants can send zero-rated SMS messages to report rumours which they’ve heard. Other communication channels will also be made available, such as voice lines, social media, and web-based options depend on people’s preferences. SMS and voice calls are still likely to remain the most accessible for the foreseeable future.

Verification – The project team then works to verify reported rumours by consulting with different stakeholders starting from the grassroots level, including local authorities, community leaders, community and faith-based organizations, women’s and youth groups, national and international NGOs, and a team of trained community ambassadors. The ambassadors are volunteers who are involved in all the stages of the project. They are recruited from each village and their role is to act as proxies on behalf of others in their communities as well as to assist in information verification.

Dissemination – After a given rumour is verified, the results are sent as soon as possible back to the relevant subscribers through SMS or other relevant communication channels. The community ambassadors also assist in sharing by word of mouth and giving detailed clarification if necessary.

Intervention – In cases where rumours turn out to be true and sharing the truth itself has a high probability of igniting violence, a delay is introduced to give time for sending alerts to the relevant authorities, such as the area security officials and or emergency response teams. The project team is well trained on how to be sensitive in such cases where the truth itself can cause tensions.

With the Hagiga Wahid system in place, South Sudanese people are able to access verified information from a neutral and trusted source and that access does not stop at South Sudan’s borders since the project is transnational with its establishment in the refugee camps in northern Uganda. The refugees are also able to verify rumours circulating about things happening in neighbouring camps or villages as well as back in South Sudan. This has contributed significantly to an atmosphere of peace among refugees from different ethnic groups and between refugees and host communities with the long-term goal being to instill an attitude of critical thinking and questioning information before making decisions or taking actions that could endanger the lives of others. While still small in scale due to limited funding, if given enough resources Hagiga Wahid has the potential to prevent violence and save thousands of lives through its community-centred approach.