Cartographies of Disinformation


This article develops a comprehensive and generic map of the media ecologies of civil society organizations in Sudan. The goal of this mapping is twofold. First, we will elaborate on why CSOs are easy targets of disinformation. Second, we will identify the types, characteristics, and goals of disinformation campaigns targeting CSOs in Sudan. Our analysis of media ecologies is based on an ethnographic assessment of information needs among Sudanese CSOs. We used in-depth interviews, media analysis, and observation notes to gather data. Our interviewees are people working in different civil society sectors, including but not limited to media and technology, democracy, gender, citizen security, and privacy, among others. We conclude this article with an analytic section detailing the types and goals of disinformation and the observed effects of these campaigns against CSOs.


Why are Civil Society Organizations Targets of Disinformation?

According to a senior security official who also volunteers as a civil society worker, CSOs are only a channel between the public and the more extensive political processes related to policy, laws, economics, and social norms. In recent years, Sudanese CSOs have independently supported low-income families, helped communities during disasters, built schools and clinics, and provided other community services. These community-building efforts threaten political figures vying for followers. The transition from the old regime to the new government has also involved the work of CSOs. Civil society workers drafted and proposed new policies and changes to existing laws and suggested more efficient governance systems. However, the CSOs are not economically stable and do not have a solid audience base. A Sudanese journalist and civil society worker said that despite having the capacity to form coalitions built upon overlapping or complementary goals, CSOs usually work independently, and solidarity does not exist between organizations, their work, and their audience base.

As Rehmat[1], a CSO worker, “Civil societies are nothing like religion. They do not have supporters or an audience base that will be ready to protect the organization or its goals. And most CSOs are economically weak. When you look at the political context of Sudan, you also realize that these organizations are dependent on those in power for different kinds of approval or sanctions to continue their work.” We can thus argue that CSOs are, in large part, socially, politically, and economically subservient to other larger forces operating in the country.

We enlist three reasons why CSOs have emerged as easy and fertile targets for disinformation campaigns:

  1. Lack of Ideological Subtext:

    Our analysis reveals that CSOs do not promote their ideologies or mission statements. It is easy for religious organizations to ideologically project their institution as the “sacred canopy”— protecting its loyal followers from the world’s uncertainty. CSOs make no such ideological claims. Even when CSOs are founded on solid ideological principles of feminism, justice, and welfare, they fail to communicate their organization’s ideology to the public. Ursula explains, “Religion, for instance, has a huge following. If something religious is said, people will follow. And religious ideology demands loyalty and allegiance. That is not the case with CSOs and social workers. The organizations have failed to create an identity that encourages people to become an audience.” Unlike other institutions built upon collective identities, such as religion, CSOs lack an ideological subtext, making it difficult for people to associate with an organization and its cause and support it during crises.

  2. Lack of Public Support:

    CSOs spend less time involving the public even when their initiatives are largely people-focused. Most of the workers we interviewed argued that the primary responsibility of CSOs is to “educate” the people. We argue that this creates a semi-hierarchical system of social movements where the public and citizens are reduced to mere spectators.

    Drawing from the concept of “spect-actor,”[2] we argue that CSOs must make efforts to create a solid audience base that has an equal and active stake in the meaning-making process. The audience witnessing the work of the CSOs should also be the actors sustaining and building the social movements and causes.

    Another strategy to reinvigorate involvement and generate public interest in the organization includes using Personal Action Frames in building movements and promoting causes. Personal Action Frames (PAF) are mobilization strategies that the public can use to customize their participation in the cause or the movement.[3] For instance, CSOs can design hashtags on a women’s rights movement and encourage girls and women to share their personal stories of empowerment using the pre-determined hashtags. A famous example of a Personal Action Frame is the “we are the 99 percent” phrase used and popularized during the Occupy Wall Street protest. The easily personalized action frame we are the 99 percent that emerged from the US occupy protests in 2011 quickly traveled the world via personal stories and images shared on social networks such as Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

    Finally, an essential strategy to develop a strong audience base in support of CSOs and the work these organizations undertake involves media skill-building and capacity development among civil society workers to engage with the public about their advocacy, causes, and ideologies on a routine basis.

  3. Lack of Resource building and Documentation:  

    CSOs in Sudan lack collective and shared resources related to disinformation studies. Some organizations we interviewed discussed insights from their research, but they could not document their process and findings. Most CSO workers had experienced disinformation in their field and had developed unique ways of refuting or dismissing it. These strategies are neither documented nor shared within their professional networks.

    As we will explore in the following sections, the information needs and media ecologies of CSOs in Sudan are distinct and unique. As a result, the reasons why disinformation is created and circulated are contextual. There are, however, significant overlaps in the experiences of CSOs across different fields of development. One of the most cited reasons for this is that most CSOs compel people in power, and institutions of governance, to adopt more progressive, liberal, and democratic values. As a result, CSOs become easy targets of disinformation. These progressive CSOs could learn to draw from one another’s experiences if they had access to a site for collaboration. A collaborative space for exchange and engagement should include: a) a well-documented and archived repository of case studies and organizations’ experiences with disinformation, b) regular knowledge-building sessions, and c) strong advocacy groups demanding more protections and rights for CSOs and civil society workers.               

Media Ecologies

Media ecologies refer to the entire gamut of communication channels, practices, skills, encounters, and technologies that an organization or individual deploys to communicate their goals, missions, activities, and engagements (with the public). An in-depth analysis of media ecologies also involves identifying stakeholders who engage with the CSOs at any level of operation, including but not limited to funding, conceptualization, execution, monitoring, evaluation, and mobilization.


The foundational elements of the media ecologies of CSOs in Sudan are classified into four categories:



  1. Channels of Communication: CSOs primarily rely on interpersonal communication channels for communication within the organization and with outsiders and the public. Interpersonal media include messenger platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, and word-of-mouth, including in-person conversations, meetings, community gatherings, and inter-community conversations.
  2. Communication Infrastructure:The communication infrastructure in Sudan, especially Khartoum, includes media technologies such as mobile phones, computers/laptops, television, newspapers, and radio. Though lack of or interrupted access to the Internet is common, it seldom translates into an information blackout. Other mediation technologies play a crucial role in compensating for limited or sporadic access to Internet services. CSOs connect with international, transnational, and trans-local organizations for work purposes, including collaboration, funding, research, and documentation. CSOs actively try to situate Sudan as an important and politically active country to garner international support and solidarity. As a result, their communication requires infrastructures enabling access to the Internet and digital platforms. CSOs also attempt to propose new ideas and values for public deliberation and widespread engagement and use mainstream media systems, including television, newspapers, and radio.
  3. Communication Practices:

    CSOs use the following communication strategies: 1) mobilization strategies to initiate or sustain causes, 2) communication within the organization, and 3) advocacy to bring about societal changes.

    CSOs use their organization’s social media accounts/profiles/pages and grassroots immersion to reach out to communities for mobilization purposes. Though most CSOs have websites and social media profiles, they do not use an organized media plan or campaign for mobilization. Their communication practices for mobilization purposes are dispersed and sporadic. The communication among the organization members, commonly referred to as internal communication, also lacks a structure and occurs on an as-needed basis where contact is initiated only for assigning work or when a crisis has emerged. Internal communication should increase organizational solidarity and inter-member cooperation and train members to identify possible issues and address them before they become a crisis. Finally, advocacy practices among CSOs often fail to inspire and draw from public support and collaboration. Any project or movement designed to introduce changes requires grassroots mobilization generated in a safe and organized manner. While discussing advocacy efforts, many CSO members interviewed for this study emphasized spontaneity and radical efforts to create societal ruptures. One member explained, “It is time to shake them [the authorities] awake.” Though this has merit and potential as a radical format for protest, CSOs have legal status and, as an organization, have to abide by the protocols of public etiquette and safety guidelines. CSOs have the potential to usher in substantial public support, but this strength of the masses can turn violent if not closely monitored and guided. CSOs and members must streamline their movement/advocacy goals and practices, invest time and efforts in identifying the possible threats and create a plan to mitigate disorder and chaos.

  4. Communication Content:

    CSOs lack strong in-house media and communications capabilities. Most of the content we saw published by CSOs includes public statements issued after the event/crisis, uncoordinated politically and socially motivated posts, and essential, often outdated information about the organization, i.e., the mission and vision statements. CSOs seldom design a media campaign to launch the movement when initiating a movement. Some of the workers or members of the organizations are assigned to post about the cause when they like. Most CSO members use their personal social media pages and account to discuss their “opinions.”

    It is important to note that most CSO messaging we analyzed is classifiable as an “opinion” or an “editorial.” The messaging lacks facts and in-depth analysis. As a result, most of the content generated by CSOs invites opinions as a form of media engagement with the posts/article. Converting public engagement or website views into sustained participation requires CSOs to invest time and effort in creating analytical pieces, reports based on facts, and reasoned editorials justifying their demands and actions. CSOs must make this practice a staple of their media output to ensure that movements are not based merely on sporadic and ephemeral social media activism (also called hashtag activism). Instead, they are founded on principles of creating public awareness.

As is evident, the media ecologies of CSOs allow for considerable gaps in communication at the level of both content and practice. The existing media ecologies of CSOs fail to fulfill the information needs of organizations. In the following section, we will enlist the information needs of the CSOs and explain how their media ecologies are not fulfilling what is needed.

Information Needs Assessment

Information Needs Assessment (INA) is a method used in humanitarian projects to assess what the community and its people know about a situation, especially related to causes, problems, issues, and ways to respond to the existing situation. Using this community-centered information, a humanitarian response is designed with the help of the community

We conducted an Information Needs Assessment for three reasons:

  • To find out why and how CSOs are likely to receive and share information
  • To identify and map their social networks and media ecologies
  • To map issues and values that are central to the operation of CSOs

Key Stakeholders

Key Issues


The Information Needs Assessment analysis of the CSOs helps us understand how much the organizations know about the issues they want to address and what new skills, practices, and information they require to procure, design, and execute response strategies.

The CSOs can:

  1. Identify the factors causing and sustaining an issue
  2. Understand the context within which these issues are articulated/experienced and how these contextual elements influence the issue
  3. Understand the means and methods to communicate and mobilize for a cause

The CSOs need to:

  1. Create public awareness through activities and engagement strategies to localize their cause and invite greater participation
  2. Develop systems and methods to make their movements sustainable
  3. Develop technical skills and media practices to sustain a solid internal and external system of communication
  4. Understand how communicated texts undergo changes and are re-interpreted as they are mediated across channels and communities
  5. Analyze the role of emerging media environments and the ways these influence public opinion and engagement
  6. Maintain relations with the media and ensure factual coverage of their activities
  7. Create and maintain a favorable public identity and image 

These yet-to-be-fulfilled information needs of the CSOs indicate the communication gaps between the organization and the public. These gaps allow misrepresentation, misinterpretations, and disinformation campaigns to flourish. The following section delineates how and why different types of disinformation are circulated to target CSOs.

Types of Disinformation Campaigns

Domestic Disinformation Campaigns are often initiated from within local communities closely affiliated with the issue or the movement initiated by the CSOs. Some of the reasons for this domestic form of disinformation include the sense of alienation local community members experience when new ideas, values, and policies are imposed on them. Most of these CSO-initiated changes emerge from systems of thinking in Western countries. CSOs do not adequately invest time localizing the movement, contextualizing it, and engaging local communities in these processes. For instance, when CSOs in Sudan rally for women’s rights, they use the Western concepts and language of liberation, emancipation, and individual liberty. Yet, in Sudan, communities value collective living and solidarity. Therefore, community members are inclined to dismiss new ideas as a foreign agenda designed to delegitimize Sudanese culture and traditions.

State-Sponsored Disinformation Campaigns are tough to identify and illustrate. In our study, many journalists, human rights advocates, community workers, and other CSO workers mentioned how the state influenced and compelled the media to spread disinformation about specific communities. We observed the media coverage of the tribal conflicts in Darfur and other conflict zones. In some cases, tribal groups propagate false narratives about conflicts to justify their violence.

The state often uses subtle techniques to spread disinformation. This disinformation is circulated with the intention of a) justifying the role and authority of the government, b) portraying the government as transparent and accountable to the public, c) covering up for corruption in the bureaucracy d) justifying inaction in cases of negligence or other issues of public interest.

No studies are available that examine if or how the government in Sudan, past or present, uses social media platforms to spread disinformation or control public opinion in its favor. There is a lack of research examining how the government uses new media technologies to surveil the public, especially CSOs workers and other opinion leaders advocating for the people. This is a significant gap in understanding the disinformation terrain in Sudan and would require extensive fieldwork, computational methods, and media analysis.

Coordinated Disinformation Campaigns are launched by organizations or groups to malign and defame CSOs or their movements and causes. The disinformation campaign against Civic Lab in Khartoum in April 2021 is an example of a coordinated attack for many reasons:

  1. A well-timed rumor was created and circulated through major channels of communication.
  2. The rumor was based on real-time events happening in Khartoum.
  3. The rumor was intensified with personal testimonies and false media reports, escalating it into a full-fledged disinformation campaign.
  4. Many contenders for influence over Civic Lab’s youth audience were directly involved in creating and circulating the disinformation.
  5. Organization-issued public statements clarifying the situation were ignored.
  6. The media organizations which published the false news about Civic Lab did not reach out to Civic Lab for a statement before publishing the report.
  7. Though these media houses apologized and retracted the report, the coordinated disinformation campaign became rooted in messaging and social media platforms, including WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter.
  8. The coordinated disinformation campaign soon became a diffused campaign supported by user-generated content, further aggravating the situation.

Diffused Disinformation Campaigns are a phenomenon where Internet users deploy the capacities of social media and other digital technologies to create new disinforming narratives to support and reinforce the original disinformation campaign. It is diffused in nature because it adopts the many-to-many mode of communication and other diffuse characteristics inherent to online social networks:

  1. It is easy and inexpensive to circulate disinforming narratives.
  2. It uses massive networks of users and quickly reaches many people.
  3. There is no start and end node in the system of disinformation dissemination.
  4. It leaves multiple digital footprints and cannot be completely removed or deleted from the public memory.
  5. It can quickly resurface with a new context and greater intensity.
  6. Diffused disinformation can only be controlled with a sustained and longitudinal public relations campaign.

Latitudinal Disinformation Campaigns are spontaneous and short-lived disinformation campaigns against CSOs. They do not receive support from macro systems of media and governance, such as mainstream media channels, the state, or the public. One community feels alienated because of activities undertaken by a CSO and might initiate a disinformation attack. Small communities, however, lack the infrastructure to mobilize support, create content, and sustain distrust toward CSO.

Longitudinal Disinformation Campaigns are expressively ideological and continue over a long period. When CSOs initiate movements or advocate for policy changes to challenge the ideology dominant in society and the contingent rituals and norms, the public often supports the disinformation campaigns launched to delegitimize the movement. The people actively engage in challenging the changes, the demands, and expressions of protests. They may use several narratives to publish and substantiate their truth. For instance, Sudan’s women’s rights movement has faced disinformation campaigns since its inception. Opponents have delegitimized the movements by claiming that it is Western propaganda funded by international organizations or by stating that the women championing the cause are misled and want to destroy the values and culture of Islamic society. Disinforming opponents also draw from a closed interpretation of religious norms, traditions, and texts to argue that the movement is against their religious beliefs and is thus inauthentic.

As is evident, for any disinformation campaign to be longitudinal, it must have the following characteristics and goals:

  1. It challenges the dominant ideology and thus the majority population.
  2. It attempts to subvert the status quo and the existing power hierarchies.
  3. It challenges the major systems of governance in the country, which are often inclined to support the majority.
  4. It is led by a small section of privileged community members, i.e., educated and economically secure people.

We help CSOs develop a comprehensive media plan to counter disinformation through our consultancy sessions, including two response assessment models to evaluate their effectiveness.


[1] We have used pseudonyms for our participants in this study to ensure their safety and privacy.

[2] Boal, A. (1985). Theatre of the oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

[3] W. Lance Bennett & Alexandra Segerberg (2012): The logic of connective action. Information, Communication & Society, 15:5, 739-768