Scenario: A tip comes through to the WhatsApp group. A new Facebook post is making the rounds across several platforms, from an unfamiliar page containing a photo of an “official” government document. One person points out the letterhead looks fake, and there is no signature nor stamp. A team sets out to discern who owns the page and their motive for posting. Another person puts in a call to the media focal point at the South Sudan Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 Taskforce to get an official response.
Once the content is confirmed fake, the group begins issuing alerts to media, requesting for retractions, and in some cases, for the posts to be removed.
These actions and more are guided by a growing grassroots network of engaged and digitally savvy South Sudanese journalists, content creators, and experts. As voluntary fact checkers, their commitment is to truth and accurately informing the public at large. Led by DefyHateNow’s #211CHECK initiative, and supported by UNDP South Sudan, the fact checkers’ toolbox includes data analytics, reverse image searches, strong sourcing, and more.
Initiated in 2014 by r0g_agency for open culture and critical transformation gGmbH (Berlin), DefyHateNow consists of a team of researchers, designers, data analysts, peacebuilders, digital rights advocates, and programmers providing data-driven solutions to the problem of hate speech, disinformation, and misinformation.
Recognizing the Digital Divide between Alternative and Mainstream Media in South Sudan
Misinformation, incitement to violence and other challenges relating to emerging media pre-dates COVID-19’s presence in South Sudan. While internet penetration hovers around 8 percent in South Sudan, according to International Telecommunication Union (ITU) 2018 indicators, mobile phone subscribers have grown exponentially in recent years. This increase in mobile internet use, especially in towns and densely populated protection of civilian sites, has resulted in an explosion of user-generated content which includes misinformation and fake news.
DefyHateNow’s ongoing research, analyzing Facebook data via Crowdtangle Intelligence, shows South Sudan’s alternative media has grown to dominate social media audiences. These are outlets such as Hot in Juba, Juba Eye, and South Sudan Bro, catching on and spreading more widely than mainstream outlets like Radio Miraya, South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation or print newspapers (Juba Monitor, The Dawn, etc.).
Word-of-mouth remains the most prevalent source of information for the masses. This creates an environment where rumors fueled on social media can take hold on the ground and become difficult to counterbalance once disseminated widely. In January 2020 a tragic-incident of intercommunal violence in Abyei led to many online users sharing misleading images with the potential of inciting retaliatory attacks.
COVID-19 amplified this dynamic and created conditions for an “infodemic” in South Sudan. When the first case was reported in April 2020, inaccurate information and leaked documents were shared in real time on social media and hate speech proliferated. Memes promoting false and quasi-medical guidance on prevention measures were shared peer-to-peer. In public places, such as markets, perceptions quickly took hold against first responders and those wearing masks, as vectors of the virus.
“Our research found that within East Africa, South Sudan is the least digitally active country when it comes to information and awareness related to COVID-19. Such a situation presents a ripe environment for rumors to spread and allows for opportunities for scaremongering and misinformation campaigns that spread like bushfire,” said Nelson Kwaje, DefyHateNow’s Director of Programmes.
Defy Hate, with Facts: Here’s How…
As part of UNDP’s partnership with DefyHateNow to scale fact-checking solutions essential to COVID-19 response and beyond, #211CHECK launched in 2020. #211CHECK is a fact-checking and information verification platform that works on countering misinformation and disinformation. Main activities include data-driven monitoring, training and fellowships, and running conducive spaces, virtually and in-person, for meeting and collaborating.
The platform produces monthly social media health reports highlighting key trends and data gleaned from their monitoring teams. They launched the #HateFreeSouthSudan online campaign in early 2021, which includes virtual concerts, avatar frames, and songs to address the surge in COVID-19 cases. Besides focusing on accurate public health information, the platform examines other issues of national concern with an active community of volunteers from different disciplines and sectors.
“These problems are a threat to peace and continue to present a real threat to democracy, press freedom, and national cohesion in almost all our countries of operation,” said Kwaje, highlighting that the DefyHateNow teams are currently leading projects in Ethiopia, Sudan, Cameroon, and Kenya.
Co-located at DefyHateNow’s Scenius Hub in Juba is a Digital Information Centre which serves as a hub for providing access to information and conducting training and vital meetings for journalists and content creators in South Sudan. The center is managed by a team of three trainers and has an open-door policy for local creatives and journalists.
The first three batches of #211Check trainings were held at the Digital Information Centre in November 2020 and January 2021. The series of two-day events virtually connected local print, radio and online journalists, media and influencers with experts from Africa Check, the continent’s first independent non-profit fact-checking organization established in South Africa in 2012.
“I have always wanted to be part of this kind of training but I never really knew where to go. Luckily, my friend shared the link to the Google form with me and I am glad I came. I will definitely be coming for more trainings like this,” said Yar Ajak from Dolku Media during the January cohort held at the hub.
Africa Check, with UNDP’s support, produced a South Sudan-specific Fact Checking Toolkit to guide attendees on tactics and digital tools available for information verification. Additional training and events in digital rights, fact-checking, information verification, and data journalism are planned in and outside of Juba in 2021 starting with Wau and Yei.
Also active at the Digital Information Centre is the first cohort of six fellows, part of the inaugural Africa Fact Checking Fellowship (#AFFSouthSudan). The three-month program aims to provide longer-term mentorship for selected journalists, focusing on how to cultivate the skills needed for creating a healthier and safer online experience for all users, devoid of toxic ideologies and other elements which have the potential of inciting violence in South Sudan.
Contributing to global 'infodemic' response
Support to DefyHateNow’s #211CHECK platform is part of UNDP South Sudan’s COVID-19 response, and benefits from UNDP’s global Accelerator Lab network’s diverse approach to learning how to counter misinformation.
Surfacing accurate and timely information is important to our peacebuilding efforts to combat hate speech and mitigate instances of community-level violence. As such, UNDP’s Peace and Community Cohesion and Accelerator Lab teams are working alongside teams of young people to ideate on a digitally-enabled conflict early warning and response system.
Complementing these streams of digital work are community mobilizers from Voice Post’s Blue Messenger Bicycles, kick-starting verified word-of-mouth information spread related to COVID-19, polio vaccination, and more. The BMB volunteers cycle through communities, delivering messages on megaphones, and feedback interactions and rumors they encounter to UNDP and the #211Check team.
Globally, UNDP has answered the call to address the danger that misinformation poses during pandemics, disasters, and conflicts using #NextGenUNDP expertise. UNDP has witnessed rapid changes in public perceptions as understanding has evolved around COVID-19 in South Sudan, both at the onset of the pandemic and as cases have surged in recent weeks. Social media and informal news sources are filling voids of information, while often sowing stigmatization, discrimination, and confusion.
“The tsunami of fake cures, scapegoating, conspiracy theories, and false news stories that has flooded media in general and online platforms in particular has created a chaotic information environment — one that is not only undermining the effectiveness of public health measures, but also leading to real life violence and discrimination, confusion, fear and, arguably, long-term societal harm,” said UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner, last year.
Misinformation during COVID-19, and beyond, threatens lives and livelihoods in South Sudan. With swift, persistent, and innovative action to verify information and rumors, together we can decrease the negative impacts of hate speech, disinformation, and misinformation.
Visit #211CHECK online here: https://www.211check.org