The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

The warring sides in Sudan have also taken their fight to cyberspace.

The ongoing fighting between the Sudanese military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has resulted in hundreds of deaths, injuries, and extensive damage throughout Sudan. However, alongside the physical war, there is another battle being fought on social media, with both sides aiming to sway public opinion.

The RSF militia has dedicated teams based in Khartoum and Dubai to this mission. They now have officially verified Facebook and Twitter accounts that have garnered a significant following. While the militia often uses social media to showcase their activities, they also resort to disinformation to deceive and manipulate their followers.

The Rapid Support Forces, previously known as the Janjaweed militia infamous for its crimes in Darfur, was nurtured under the deposed regime and utilized in counterinsurgency operations. Their record includes atrocities such as killing and raping protesters during protests in Khartoum, unlawfully detaining activists, and sending children to fight in Yemen. Their violations have extended to looting residential buildings and using hospitals as shields during fighting with Sudan’s military.

The militia and its supporters employ various tactics and approaches on social media, including utilizing out-of-context photos; blackmail and coercion; creating fake social media accounts; and creating front online news platforms.

Malicious actors often reuse old photos from unrelated events to deceive their audience. For example, in April, the militia claimed to have shot down a fighter jet. However, an independent fact-checking organization debunked this claim by conducting an image reverse search, revealing that the photo was actually taken during fighting in Syria.

The militia utilizes fake social media accounts to artificially boost content engagement and make their tweets appear more popular than they actually are. A fact-checking report recently exposed tens of thousands of fake accounts on Twitter. Similarly, a network of 900 accounts was uncovered in April, which attempted to appear authentic by frequently tweeting inspirational quotes. Similar tactics were used on Facebook, where thousands of fake accounts were found reacting positively to militia officials and related pages. In 2018, Facebook removed a similar network aimed at promoting the RSF militia.

The militia creates seemingly objective and neutral news platforms to disseminate fabricated and biased content. For instance, a Facebook page called Quick News with 375,000 followers claims to provide daily updates on the war. However, the page’s transparency reveals that it was created in 2014 under the name “Rapid Support Force” and later renamed in 2019.

The militia publishes general statements and talking points to present their troops as nonviolent, thereby twisting the reality of their on-ground violations. For example, the militia issued a media statement condemning an attack on a Coptic Orthodox Church and claiming to respect the rights of religious groups in Sudan. However, confirmed reports exposed that the militia occupies several churches, turning them into military bases after forcibly storming the buildings and displacing their staff. In another instance, the militia falsely claimed that the Sudanese Air Force had bombed the presidential palace when only part of it was damaged.

The militia also engages in abducting and blackmailing humanitarian aid workers. For instance, earlier this year, the militia detained a Doctors Without Borders team and forced them to make a statement on camera about how well they were treated. Under pressure, the team complied but later issued an official statement detailing the incident. Additionally, the militia shared videos of two Islamist leaders whom they had taken hostage, manipulating them into testifying and supporting the RSF militia’s narrative about the deposed regime’s responsibility for starting the war.

To improve their image in Western countries, the militia hired a French public relations firm to edit Wikipedia pages related to the militia. While these pages currently maintain high-quality and independent content adhering to the standards of the online website, they could be targeted in the future to mislead readers.

It is evident that these techniques are traditional and known, but the introduction of sophisticated tools and AI technologies could escalate the disinformation war to a new level. Efforts by fact-checking organizations and journalists can help reduce the impact and spread of such content. However, the majority of fabricated information will likely continue to circulate and be consumed. It is crucial for big tech companies, who have been slow to respond to petitions requesting the removal of militia-related pages, to increase their content moderation efforts and expedite the removal of content that violates their policies.

Mohamed Suliman is a senior researcher at Northeastern University and also holds a degree in Engineering form the University of Khartoum.