Disinformation Campaign against Civic Lab (APRIL-JUNE 2021)
This report details the disinformation campaign launched against Civic Lab in Sudan. The report describes how and why Civic Lab was accused of inciting violence during sit-in protests at the Excellence hospital and the channels used to create and circulate disinformation narratives. The report enlists the intentionality fueling this disinformation campaign in a highly connected digital world.
We have conducted an in-depth analysis of the organization’s public engagement, media presence, and civic society connections to understand how such an orchestrated disinformation campaign was conceptualized and sustained. This disinformation campaign was carried out in five stages: appropriating the media vacuum around Civic Lab to create disinformation narratives, using media capacities to produce targeted disinformation, deploying encrypted spaces on social media and user-generated content to enable rumors and false information exacerbating the original disinformation, generating a negative social media presence for Civic Lab, and creating distrust among the public towards the organization.
Based on our preliminary analysis, we were able to identify the critical disinformation strategies used in media narratives and social media posts against Civic Lab. These include: demonizing the protesters, delegitimizing the protests as anti-national or violent, using derogatory language, re-using old disinformation pieces to launch new current attacks, and blaming Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) for inciting violence and influencing young minds.
Identifying these strategies and understanding the political and media ecologies supporting this disinformation campaign was crucial in designing an action plan to help Civic Lab counter it. In the last section of this report, we have suggested three methods to counter disinformation, including but not limited to a) conducting regular and systematic media analysis to preempt attempts to spread disinformation and b) organizing media training and workshops for communication departments in civic society organizations to encourage them to build coalitions and equip them with resources required to counter disinformation and c) creating a media presence for Civic Lab through sustained public relations.
About Civic Lab
Civic Lab is a civil society initiative founded by youth activists who believe in creating more just and equitable societies.
Civic Lab is founded on the principles of using education, arts, technology, and activism to support civic engagement among young people in Sudan. Civic Lab holds a space for young activists to ideate new forms of civic engagement, develop skills and competencies to enact their participation, and sustain groups built around shared values of community building and belonging.
Civic Lab has consistently refused to align itself with any political group or ideology. Members of Civic Lab work towards seeking accountability from people in power, demanding transparency in administrative and bureaucratic processes, and supporting neighborhood communities to design locally actionable plans to resolve problems facing their societies. The goal is to enable local communities and equip them with skills and competencies to create awareness about civic issues and encourage them to contribute towards upholding principles of equity, justice, and human rights.
Civic Lab holds promise for local communities and has emerged as a powerful site to initiate processes of change. Many political groups want to appropriate this influence to change public opinion in their favor. As Civic Lab continues to deny them access to the youth community that built and continues to sustain this organization, politically motivated groups are actively trying to create disinformation and malign the work and mission of Civic Lab.
In April of 2021, a local group of activists initiated a sit-in protest near a hospital in Khartoum, demanding accountability from the hospital authorities regarding the storage of several unidentified bodies in its morgue. The protesters claimed that the bodies found in the morgue were of other activists killed due to police and military brutality. According to an activist who participated, “Young people from different neighborhoods organized this protest. No organization was involved in bringing these protesters together. We collectively realized that the authorities were threatening and brutalizing activists who questioned people and institutions in power. The protesters were demanding autopsy reports to ensure that we can identify the bodies, determine their cause of death, and punish people responsible for these killings.”
People-led social movements are often dispersed, making it challenging to identify a single entity responsible for the mobilization and organization processes. Dispersed movements rely on people’s contributions to sustain protests, but there is no hierarchy in leadership. Another activist explained, “We do not have a leadership hierarchy because these movements are decentralized to ensure that people feel free to participate and contribute. These protests are innovative and flexible; anyone can suggest a new course of action, and people will support new ideas if they feel the plans are effective.” Such dispersed social movements have often challenged the authorities for their techniques to suppress dissent brutally. Police and the military have used several disinformation strategies to delegitimize the people-led movements.
In the case of disinformation against Civic Lab, the main goal of the disinformation campaign was to target the organization. The campaign did not target individuals participating in the protests at the Excellence hospital. The unfortunate instances of violence at this protest site were falsely linked to Civic Lab, thus claiming that the organization provoked and supported violence in the name of civic engagement. This claim severely threatened the organization’s public image and existence as a CSO. In this report, we explain how this was an organized disinformation campaign to debunk the assumed validity of these accusations.
In the following section, some of the central disinformation strategies used in the campaign against Civic Lab are enlisted with empirical evidence to substantiate our arguments:
Strategy I: Demonizing the protesters
Newspaper reports and social media posts extending false accusations against Civic Lab used the strategy of demonizing the protesters as violent people. The protesters were labeled as pseudo-revolutionaries”— those who are obstacles to the work of true patriots trying to lead the country in the right direction.
Labeling protesters and their causes as anti-national is an easy way to sway the public into believing that the organization has nefarious intentions. Initiating discussions on nationalism persuades people to express zealous attitudes and dehumanize the accused.
The article continues delegitimizing Civic Lab as an organization that supports and organizes violent protests.
It blames Civic Lab for possible censorship of revolutionary committees and protest activities by the government.
Strategy II: Delegitimizing the protests
Another strategy used to create disinformation is to delegitimize protests. Delegitimizing protests is based on the argument that the protesters are misinformed or lack discretion, especially if they are young. Such accusations involved blaming Civic Lab for using its power and influence to misguide young people.
For instance, in the newspaper article titled Civic Lab accused of assassinating one of the participants in the Excellence hospital sit-in protest, members of Civic Lab were accused of having affiliations with political groups and parties. They were accused of using their networks among young people to influence and instigate them to conduct violence.
Strategy III: Creating and reinforcing negative stereotypes
Most of the disinformation content against Civic Lab used descriptive labels to project protesters as political monoliths and thus stereotype them. Some of the standard terms used include “terrorists,” “violent,” “anti-national,” “uncritical,” and “anti-religion,” among others.
For instance, Sudan Daily, an electronic news agency, published a post using labels such as “violent” and “Black Bloc group” to describe Civic Lab as an organization that incites unrest to weaken the genuine and ethical protest groups. The disinformation campaign is designed to ascribe fixed labels and false meanings to Civic Lab, thus persuading the public to identify the organization as unfit to claim any revolutionary space for civic engagement activities.
Strategy IV: Re-using old disinformation narratives
Any form of disinformation circulated on social media networks leaves a digital footprint that is difficult to erase from public memory. A post was distributed in November 2020 accusing Civic Lab of aligning with Rapid Support Militia to influence and control the young population. Circulating this post was a concerted attempt at destroying Civic Lab’s work and public image. Though the Lab members have posted an account of the event explaining how they were tricked into meeting with the Rapid Support commander on the promise that the Prime Minister had invited them, the disinformation post was widely circulated on digital media. This post connecting Civic Lab with RSF resurfaced recently during the April 2021 disinformation campaign against Civic Lab to reinforce among the public that the organization has predetermined political goals. This is one of the many disinformation strategies used to label Civic Lab as an organization that uses violence.
Disinformation circulated online has a long shelf life and can be re-used to continue political attacks on any organization. In most cases, individuals can create and spread disinformation, and many media organizations draw from these inauthentic posts and publish stories for public attention. Even if these media organizations submit public apologies later, the apologies do not get the same traction as the disinformation narrative.
Strategy V: Assigning blame
In the case of dispersed movements, it is difficult to identify individuals and blame them for organizing and mobilizing a large people-led protest. In the case of the sit-in protest at the hospital, assigning blame required identifying a target organization with infrastructural expertise for mobilizing people. Though Civic Lab had no part to play in the sit-in protest at the organizational level, the presence of individuals affiliated with the organization at the protest site is often used to upscale the attack from targeting random protesters to blaming an organization (invested with power). Civic Lab emerged as a solid and robust institution equipped with the potential to start a protest and thus an efficient target to assign blame. Civic Lab eventually fell prey to the disinformation propaganda of diverse actors and institutions. The following section highlights the central characteristics of the disinformation propaganda created against Civic Lab in Khartoum, Sudan.
User Generated Disinformation
Digital technologies and communication networks enabled the phenomenon of dispersed and user-generated disinformation. Dispersed implies that communication is mainly decentralized, and everyone can participate in creating and publishing information. Users cannot be held accountable for what they say, hear, and post anonymously. Users can create content using various technical affordances of digital technologies. The content can be inauthentic, ideologically motivated, false, hurtful/hateful.
On the one hand, user-generated content can ensure that people can create and promote lesser-known perspectives/experiences and democratize communication. On the contrary, many institutions of power, including political leaders and groups, administrators, and bureaucrats, can use the same affordances of the Internet to create and spread disinformation. We define this process as “digital co-opting,” i.e., the online practice of using the Internet’s affordances—initially designed to democratize communication—to create disinformation and marginalize others.
Based on our analysis of social media conversations, interviews with protesters and activists in Khartoum, and the study of media coverage, we identify four steps in this disinformation phenomenon against Civic Lab. Civic Lab does not have a media presence. As a result, people who are not involved with civil society work in a direct capacity and do not have any information or impression of the organization. People conspiring against Civic Lab, including but not limited to political actors, other civic society organizations, opinion leaders, and some media houses, used this media vacuum to populate the media space with disinformation against Civic Lab. Many people took up this targeted disinformation and used their private social media spaces to create more rumors against the organization. In other words, the content of targeted disinformation served as the basis for developing false content, which led to dispersed and more exaggerated versions of disinformation. The targeted disinformation and user-generated rumors also helped carve a negative image for Civic Lab in online and other media spaces. People who have not engaged with Civic Lab at an individual level continued consuming disinformation content criticizing and demonizing Civic Lab. As a result, a sense of distrust towards Civic Lab is palpable among people.
In the following sections, we describe each stage in this disinformation cycle.
Media Vacuum: Civics Lab lacks a media presence. Also, members of Civic Lab tend to be from low-income backgrounds and do not always have access to Internet data at home, which means elites dominate the social media sphere. Civic Lab has maintained a low profile on social media and other outlets to avoid drawing the attention of political parties and the government. This organizational strategy has created a media vacuum that was later filled with disinformation against the organization.
Targeted Disinformation: Social media users used their accounts to create and publish disinformation against Civic Lab. Some of these people were affiliated with competing civil society organizations, yet others were affiliated with political parties trying to deploy youth groups to support their parties and ideologies. Disinformation initiated against individuals leading Civic Lab projects quickly devolved into a targeted attack on Civic Lab as a civil society organization.
For instance, the Jabra committee issued a statement accusing protest members affiliated with Civic Lab of the death of Hassan Abdullah, the 15-year-old kid and a member of the Ten Resistance Committee. Several social media users used the disinformation published by the Jabra committee to create more rumors through their posts on social media. Look at the following example:
Translation: A statement from the Jabra Resistance Committee confirming the validity of our information about the internal security agency of the Forces of Freedom and Change (the Civic Lab and the Kings of Clashes) and its implementation of the policies and directives of the Central Forces of Freedom and Change.
User-generated rumors: Few activists and civil society workers created targeted disinformation. They generated inauthentic reports or lengthy Twitter posts to circulate targeted disinformation. This targeted disinformation was amplified through user-generated rumors exaggerating each claim in the original disinformation posts and articles against Civic Lab. Here, it is critical to discuss the potential of encrypted messaging applications, especially WhatsApp, in enabling users to create more rumors to support the initial disinformation narrative.
Let us look at an example of user-generated disinformation posts on social media:
Translation: O Civic Lab, the resistance committees are alive! Even if you are a political and social incubator, for those trying to stop revolutionaries, even when you buy revolutionaries every day for a thousand dollars and meet with Hemedti secretly, we will not be influenced. You will not get any support here! You will not control us because we reject dependence.
Another finding reveals that people on Twitter had already started speculating and spreading rumors and disinformation around this case. Individuals who received the disinformation but did not read the published public apologies continued to think Civic Lab was blameworthy. As a result, user-generated content was used extensively to launch a full-blown attack on Civic Lab.
Negative Social Media Presence: The targeted disinformation and the user-generated rumors create a negative social media presence for Civic Lab. This social media presence of Civic Lab is saturated with false and misleading information about the organization.
Public Relations: We define public relations in terms of perception, i.e., what does the public think about Civic Lab (public image of Civic Lab) and how it presents itself to the public. The media vacuum around Civic Lab was filled with a negative social media presence created by disinformation and rumors. Negative media presence adversely affected the perception of Civic Lab among people in Sudan, thus delegitimizing their work and efforts. A sense of suspicion towards the organization among people can also reinforce the existing negative narratives around Civic Lab.
The main reasons for disinformation against Civic Lab include individuals, political groups vying for power and influence over young activists, and a lack of a critical media and public relations department at Civic Lab.
If any group attains the position of an organization, it becomes open to public scrutiny and participation. In such a situation, it is essential that the organization creates and maintains an organized channel of communication- both internally with the employees/participants and externally with the public, other organizations, and stakeholders. Though Civic Lab believes in grassroots activism and a decentralized participation model, the organization must centralize and monitor information related to its work, people, and projects. The organization must train its media department to preempt disinformation and actively create content to counter it. It must develop systems of engaging with the public to create a media presence so that it can challenge the disinformation generated in the situation of a media vacuum.
The following section highlights an actionable plan to counter disinformation against Civic Lab in Sudan.
Phase I: Media Analysis
In this phase, we suggest conducting an in-depth analysis of the disinformation strategies evident in the media coverage and social media posts/comments on Civic Lab. The focus is on looking at the “text” and identifying disinformation discourses. This process is divided into two steps:
- Thematic analysis of disinformation content: What labels, descriptions, evidence, and values have people used to create and circulate disinformation? Which channels of communication have been deployed to disseminate disinformation? What are the characteristics of the communication channels used to create and spread disinformation?
- Content creation includes creating content to debunk the disinformation narratives circulated against Civic Lab. The focus is gathering the evidence required to challenge and falsify disinformation posts, articles, and comments.
Media training includes workshops and training sessions with media departments and personnel working for Civic Lab to equip them with the critical skills required to monitor, identify, and counter disinformation actively. The success of a media campaign depends on how efficiently the media department can preempt disinformation attempts and prevent the situation from escalating. We propose to design and conduct workshops based on the principles of creating and sustaining public relations through content creation, regular communication, and online transparency.
We suggest bringing other civil society organizations to call out the disinformation campaign against Civic Lab. To build on this local network of support, Civic Lab can host workshops to train communication personnel in managing the media presence of other civil society organizations. These workshops will encourage them to discuss similar experiences, collaborate on projects, and design strategies to counter disinformation. Civic Lab can publish and circulate these documents for transparency and resource-building.
The final phase involves creating and sustaining an organized media presence for Civic Lab. Civic Lab cannot exist in a media vacuum. It must make concerted efforts to develop a public image and publish and broadcast regular news and updates. It must also attempt to monitor the online activities of its members to detect any possibility where the online content they create is misused and decontextualized to malign the organization. It is essential to clarify that we are not suggesting that the organization surveils everything the members post and express online. We will develop a strategy that will help Civic Lab understand the kinds of conversations its members are initiating, i.e., where, when, and how they are referring to their affiliation with the organization, and use this information to predict the possible attempts at disinformation. This strategy will help the organization predict an attack and create content to counter it in advance.
Media presence also consists of sustained online and offline engagement with the public. Public engagement plans must include those who neither frequent the organization nor associate themselves with its goals and values. Creating a media presence involves generating a positive perception of the organization in the public sphere and monitoring the conversations related to the organization. If Civic Lab develops a strong media presence, it will also be able to provide people with a platform for engagement. Instead of using multiple pages and posts online, the media team at Civic Lab can steer all conversations related to the organization towards a designated social media page and profile. Such a media plan will also help monitor the discourses related to the organization and its work more efficiently and in real-time.