The online #EndSudanBlackout and the Big Tech risks of surveillance and misinformation

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“We’re savvy to the underhanded methods used by the military to disrupt our momentum — it’s the same textbook they’ve been using since the days of Bashir,” Dallia Abdelmoniem told Pandora Times, a civic activist based in Khartoum, Sudan. 

 

Sudan has been surviving in a quasi-complete internet blackout state with patchy phone services and ADSL broadband connection only limited to a few. “Reports that telecom services were especially limited today, with many international callers reporting difficulty getting in touch with their relatives on the ground”, reads the Sudan Coup database page. 

 

“Currently, the situation is similar to the aftermath of the June 3rd Massacre in Khartoum in 2019 when the internet was shut down for a long period of time and it was more difficult to access information, videos and documentation,” said Duha Elmardi, Project Coordinator at Sustainability Action Fund in Montreal, Canada. 

 

Elmardi settled in Canada seeking asylum from the brutal dictatorship under al-Bashir, now supporting mobilizing online resources albeit at a time of little to no internet access in Sudan.

 

“The lack of communication and the high risk those in Sudan face to find an internet connection and share documentation in a safe manner is a massive challenge even to just check in with our families and friends there,” Elmardi noted.

 

For nearly a month, Sudan has been under an internet blackout imposed by the military to cover up their crimes as they enact a coup, according to Access Now, an NGO working in the field of digital civil rights. 

 

The streets of Sudan have been awash with cries to return to civic rule. On October 3, a loose democratic coalition party – the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) – splintered after a group broke away from the party calling themselves the FFC National Accord (FFC-NA). The FFC-NA declared their loyalty to the military despite the fact that these prominent forces spearheaded the ouster of President Al-Bashir’s regime of 30 years in 2019. 

 

The breakaway faction alleged that the FFC was “monopolizing power” although the FFC merely oversees 18 out of 26 government ministries in Sudan. Days later, the FFC-NA’s boycott of the FFC Central Council was echoed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the former chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan and called for the immediate dissolution of the civilian hold on government. 

 

Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok rejected al-Burhan and his forces’ commands to dissolve the civilian government calling it a ‘coup attempt’. In turn, he laid out a 10-point solution to move past the political crisis but to the FFC leadership’s dismay, the FFC-NA organized protests to completely dissolve the civilian government on October 18. In response to the coup attempt, hundreds of thousands of protestors called for a joint civilian-military democratic transition. 

 

An estimated four million people came out to protest on October 30 against the military coup and marches were also organized in over 50 cities worldwide, according to the Washington Post

 

However, pro-democracy organizers in Sudan and abroad are battling to expose fake news and Sudanese army members spying on users, also turning this on-ground movement in Sudan into a digital uprising against the anti-democracy camp. 

 

Censorship and the #EndSudanBlackout march

 

While protestors like Abdelmoniem are well-aware of the dangers of misinformation campaigns run by loyalists to the military and the previous Bashir regime, and the need to verify claims with local and foreign media agencies, it is easier to trigger word-of-mouth effects from a single post or repost that can even cascade into the real world. 

 

Dr. Khoo Ying Hooi, a senior lecturer at the University of Malaya specializing in digital social movements said that the “Sudanese Diaspora uses social media to emancipate themselves from political discussions in just their social network, which includes posting thought-provoking information, “‘liking’ or commenting on posts, and sharing articles related to the latest issue in Sudan.” 

 

Dr. Khoo adds that the sheer anonymity on social media offers respite from fears of repercussions i.e., government threats and sanctions. Contrary to traditional modes of communicating and mobilizing, she also notes that while the social-media enabled political movements are convenient and questions outmoded perceptions of civil disobedience such as street rallies and demonstrations, institutionalized control on internet and phone lines in Sudan is putting a tight squeeze on activists’ freedom to communicate. 

 

According to a local Right to Live initiative in Sudan, joint forces of the military and the police attacked protestors at the much-anticipated November 13 march protesting the #SudanBlackout. Sara, the Sudanese-American activist said that tear gas, stun grenades and live bullets were fired quicker at the Sudanese people than the demonstrations organized during the October 30 millions march. Five protesters were killed at the hands of the coup forces. 

 

General al-Burhan, the key leader of the coup, claimed that the internet shutdowns are due to the online media – in other words, social media – “instigating sedition” despite the Sudanese court ordering telecommunication companies Zain, MTN and Sudani to restore internet lines of communication. Not to mention renowned activists from the Sudanese diaspora jumped on board to pressure these telecom companies to end the blackout in Sudan.

 

Despite the social media giant’s prompt decision to take down hate-mongering accounts spreading misinformation, Abdelmoniem says that “citizen journalists part of the resistance are first to confirm to avoid rumors flying about and most are done to disrupt/dispute the work being done to continue the momentum”. 

 

In an unprecedented move by Facebook, two large-scale groups linked to the paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), were closed down for targeting Sudanese users, according to a Reuters report. In fact, a thousand accounts and pages with over a million followers had to be closed down as they threatened the security of the Sudanese people, provoked anti-democracy sentiment and posed as grassroots campaigns. 

 

The future of digital resistance 

 

While protestors like Abdelmoniem are well-aware of the dangers of misinformation campaigns run by loyalists to the military and the previous Bashir regime, and the need to verify claims with local and foreign media agencies, it is easier to trigger word-of-mouth effects from a single post or repost that can even cascade into the real world. 

 

Dr. Khoo adds that the sheer anonymity on social media offers respite from fears of repercussions i.e., government threats and sanctions. Contrary to traditional modes of communicating and mobilizing, she also notes that while the social-media enabled political movements are convenient and questions outmoded perceptions of civil disobedience such as street rallies and demonstrations, institutionalized control on internet and phone lines in Sudan is putting a tight squeeze on activists’ freedom to communicate. 

 

The media is starkly divided into traditional mass media and online social media, with the former being more government-friendly and thus creating the need for protestors to push counter-narratives to the forefront, according to Dr. Khoo. 

 

“The role of movement organizers is instrumental in gaming platform algorithms, that is, employing keywords in hashtags to maximize visibility and virality of message while platform algorithm provide the technical means for states to manipulate flows of communication through the use of paid users and bots that multiply messages favorable to their agenda,” said Dr. Khoo. 

 

For the Sudanese people at home and overseas, the struggle lies in spreading pro-democracy content and data as harmful and discriminatory information like disseminating racist and homophobic messages mobilise the public, albeit with violent effects. See Iran’s use of covert surveillance of digital activist communication and Egypt’s deep packet inspection systems to hamper flows of information. 

 

Today, the wildfire spread of both misinformation and disinformation on social media can negatively affect civil liberties with mass surveillance leading to chilling effects on free speech. 

 

The Sudanese Resistance Committee withstood bread and gas shortages back at the heels of the democratic revolution and now they have expanded to many corners of the globe to ensure Sudan is being seen and not pummeled by falsehoods. 

 

Elmardi, who has endured and escaped authoritarian practices under al-Bashir said “many of us are focused on amplifying the voices of the revolutionaries on the ground who have been taking on the load of this work, coupled with high risks to their safety and security and fighting heroically with limited resources and a nationwide internet shutdown.”

 

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