Disinformation Campaign against the April 2021 Women’s March
Introduction: A Feminist Manifesto
On April 8, 2021, hundreds of women rallied against domestic and gender-based discrimination in Khartoum, Sudan. Fifty women’s rights organizations and other civil society institutions collectively orchestrated this march to draw public attention to the rise in Covid-related gender-based violence in Sudan. Protesters marched from the Ministry of Justice to the Public Prosecution Office in Khartoum to show solidarity for denouncing patriarchal and misogynistic laws sustaining the continued discrimination against women and girls in Sudan.
This march successfully generated conversations on the need to challenge the oppression of women. Unfortunately, the organizing institutions and civil society actors were targeted with disinformation and verbal abuse. Their demands and modes of activism were also delegitimized. In this report, we trace the trajectory of disinformation around the women’s march.
The three main objectives of this article are:
- To understand how participating CSOs mobilized for and organized the April 2021 women’s march.
- To identify how digital disinformation was designed and delivered during and after the march.
- To identify effective strategies to counter disinformation online and offline.
We interviewed CSO workers and people who helped organize or participated in this march. We also used Twitter’s API to collect 20,000 tweets to examine the Sudanese online discourse surrounding the women’s march. Finally, we analyzed the coverage of this march in traditional media channels, including television and print, both online and in newspapers.
The Digital Kandakes on Streets
Research in social movement studies indicates that digital media plays a crucial role in mobilizing for offline protests and sustaining civic and political participation. Scholars argue that digital technologies provide technical possibilities to enhance connections and exchange of information at rapid speeds and in dynamic formats. These studies describe digital technologies as a “tool” to promote, sustain, or mobilize protests and social movements. We offer an alternate narrative in this case study as we unpack two key arguments. First, the technical possibilities of digital technologies are used not only for democratic purposes such as organizing people-led movements but also to reify discriminatory systems and practices. Second, digital technologies enable the creation and circulation of disinformation and amplify its impact and reach.
During the women’s march, the participating CSOs and civil society workers extensively used digital networks to invite greater participation in the women’s march and mobilize for the more significant cause of women’s rights in Sudan. As one of the protest participants explained, “It is quick and cheap online. You can reach many people with a single tweet or post, and many people in Khartoum use social media. It is easier on social media to show how many organizations and people support a cause.” The participant was discussing the process of creating “media solidarity” through routine online practices.
Our analysis indicates that although the CSOs and workers used social media spaces to initiate discussions around this march and to mobilize support around this event, online discourse related to the movement peaked after the march. We analyzed 20,000 tweets and retweets related to the march on Twitter from March 15 to April 30, 2021. Our analysis demonstrates that there was less online engagement with this event before April 8, the day of the march. There was a peak in online engagement during the week after the event, and then the online engagement went down.
Based on our analysis of data collected from social media and our interviews with participants, it is clear that the organizers and active civil society workers used open social media spaces such as Twitter or public pages on Facebook to mobilize support for the march. But the users of these platforms did little to amplify this information before the event. In contrast, the march’s supporters primarily relied on enclosed social media spaces such as WhatsApp, messenger apps, and other offline communication systems to invite participation and pledge support. Only during and especially after the march did discussion begin and gain traction in open social media spaces.
We have identified three reasons for this sequence of events:
- CSOs and civic actors used their social media, primarily their Twitter handles, to publicize their participation (in most cases, real-time) during the march.
- CSOs and civic actors wrote tweets defending the march’s goals, mission, and demands. They actively tried to fight the onslaught of online and offline disinformation delegitimizing the event.
- People who supported the march but could not participate also challenged user-generated disinformation created to defame the participating feminists, activists, and organizations.
User-Generated Disinformation Strategies
Our data sample for this case profile consisted of 20000 tweets, seven interviews with CSOs, 500 purposively sampled messages from cloaked online spaces such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram accounts, and 21 media reports in local English-language news outlets. A preliminary analysis of our data sample reveals that out of all the data gathered, 8976 tweets and 455 messages from cloaked spaces contained disinformation generated to delegitimize the march and the cause of women’s rights in Sudan.
We analyzed the disinformation tweets and messages comprising these terms and then identified six themes, i.e., disinformation strategies, used to delegitimize the march. In the following sections, we explain each strategy, identify the technical features of social media that enabled a type of disinformation, and provide examples to substantiate our arguments.
Strategy 1: Denial of Credibility
Denial of credibility starts with the process of seeding doubt about the authenticity of the event, person, cause, or organization. This strategy consists of all the actions taken to create a sense of distrust in the movement, event, or organization. The two most common techniques used to create doubt about the authenticity of the march and the cause included:
- Fabricating false connections between participating CSOs-civic society workers with Western organizations and ideology.
In the post-revolution stage, people in Sudan are trying to consolidate a unified national identity and collective aspirations. In such a situation, it is easy to delegitimize a cause if the disinformation can succeed in establishing links between domestic CSOs and Western organizations. People in Sudan share a colonial past replete with instances of discrimination and violence. With this historical context, establishing connections to contemporary Western ideology or institutions is an effective strategy for invoking collective memories of suppression. Fabricating such links allows people to create paranoia and fear among the masses towards any form of change that resonates with Western or liberal ideologies.
The following tweets show this disinformation technique in practice:
- I saw it myself. They were giving 1 dollar to older women who stay at home and have nothing to do, bringing them to the march. Where are they getting dollars from? Foreign money will weaken our country.
- The Feminist Manifesto was written either by Hillary Clinton or Beyonce [sic]. These demands cannot be by Muslims, Arabs, or Saudis.
- Rotten feminists are the weapons of the West against our culture and religion. They are the culprits who are destroying families and society in Sudan. How do you think they have the money to organize this march? They were giving food to people, and they also had huge buses. Where do you think they get the money from?
- Did we have a revolution for this? So that the western powers can use these feminist prostitutes to destroy our culture and country? These organizations receive vast sums of money from Western countries for establishing democratic systems. I am a CA, and I know how this works. They portray women in Sudan as weak and use our name to get more money and then use it to destroy our lifestyle.”
The process of initiating doubt draws strength from the discourse on nationalism. Who is a nationalist? What does true nationalism mean? In this discussion around governance and nationalism, there are references to religion, Sudan’s colonial past, the global community’s continued and systemic discrimination of Islamic countries and people, and the vulnerability of Sudan’s newly formed government. These disinformation narratives instill a sense of insecurity among people by pointing to an inevitable collapse of their nation’s independence and religion if feminist movements and causes are encouraged and supported.
- Establishing that CSOs and the participating individuals lack “true” knowledge.
In many tweets, users created disinformation to establish that the demands of women’s rights groups and organizations are baseless. For example, the Feminist Manifesto is a document widely circulated during the march and is based on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Many tweets devalued or denied the credibility and validity of the demands stated in the Feminist Manifesto.
The following tweets illustrate this de-basing technique:
- What do they know about Islamic laws when all they read is Western books of sin? According to the Quran, I have a Ph.D. in Islamic studies and know that women have many inheritance rights. Wives have more ownership over money and property than their husbands. This shows that the feminist monkeys who wrote these demands do not understand our systems and religion in Sudan.”
- They demand that Islamic laws are abolished, and we should not believe in our religion. We are educated enough to read this document and understand that their demands insult our Quran and religion. They also do not understand the law. I am an advocate and know that the personal law act is fair to women. It clearly states that men will not interfere with her private property. Women have so much equality in Islam. What are they fighting for?”
Many such tweets and other social media messages circulating disinformation about the Feminist Manifesto establish that women in general, and anyone participating in the march or rallying for the cause of women’s rights, are misinformed or uneducated in matters of religion and law in Sudan. They decontextualize the demands in ways that allow them to focus on the non-controversial aspects of a law that CSOs and workers are contesting while glossing over the more discriminatory facets of the same law. For instance, women’s rights groups and other CSOs are challenging the validity of the Muslim Personal Law Act of Sudan because it permits the marriage of girls as young as ten years if they have the permission of a judge and the same law forbids women to work outside their homes without the prior consent and approval of their husbands. Disinforming social media users selectively ignore these arguments that the CSOs and other march participants presented and argue that the “woke intellectuals want to challenge the sanctity of Islamic marriage laws and principles” (Tweet).
It is important to note that disinformation gains more authority over the authentic narrative and meanings when disinforming users assign themselves with descriptive labels and position themselves as professionals, experts, researchers, and eyewitnesses. Out of all the disinformation content we analyzed, messages which used descriptive titles such as a doctor, Ph.D. student, researcher, lawyer, civil worker, government employee, and so on received twice the engagement from other users (in terms of retweets or comments) than tweets without these descriptive labels.
Strategy 2: Scene Fabrication
Scene fabrication is defined as a strategy of creating fake scenes or inventing details about an event to justify a false argument. Users rely on visual images to develop seemingly more detailed and believable content. For instance, many photos from the march were used to prove that the participants were anti-Islam and wanted to destabilize the country. Many of these tweets used out-of-context open access images of Muslim women without the hijab and in trousers to suggest that the women’s rights groups wanted to turn Sudan into an amoral country bereft of Islamic teachings and practices. As it is possible to maintain anonymity on Twitter, many users spreading disinformation lie by saying they are personal acquaintances with women from the march site as a strategy to ensure that their disinformation is accepted as an authentic “personal experience” story. Most of these Twitter handles are operated anonymously.
Let us look at the following messages circulated on Twitter and WhatsApp:
“Now… who is this? Man or woman? This is what feminists will do to our girls. Confuse them and turn them gay and [into] sinners. I know this woman. She is a member of the LGBT group; they are soul-less and god-less women. It is high time we stop them- ban them or jail them.”
“This is who they want to be like. No clothes, no modesty. Run on the streets. No family. And no religion. Feminists are a curse to our nation and religion.
Do you see how she is so shameless? How can we allow such people to lead our youth?”
The first visual was widely circulated on Twitter to support the women’s march, with several Twitter users reposting this image with emancipatory quotes and phrases. Many Twitter handles spreading disinformation used the same image to create slander narratives, questioning the woman’s morality and virtue in the photo. Many claimed to have known this woman or “women like her” and used fake stories to create disinformation around the agenda of this march. Some tweets suggested that the protest was organized to promote same-sex relationships, lure women into giving up their pious lifestyles and dresses, or “hate on men because they want to be men.”
The second visual is from a story in The New York Times published in June 2020. The visual was appropriated to fabricate a scene representing the women’s march. The intention is to draw on these readily available transnational images to create a sense of threat among the people of Sudan. Fabricating a scene allows disinformation circulators to help people envision a possible future of despair and disgust where women have led astray and taken over the streets. The technical affordance of social media allows users to focus on brevity, thus privileging sensationalism and affect-intensive narratives over reasoned and detailed explanations. Social media also enables users to create accessible, easy, and user-friendly content at great speed while ensuring that these decontextualized narratives are immediately circulated to large audiences. We define this technique of decontextualizing narratives to convey inauthentic meanings and fabricated scenes and representations as the “disinformation collage.”
Strategy 3: Ideological Emulsification
Ideological emulsification is a technique to magnify an event or occurrence and link it with a more extensive narrative involving broader issues. In this case, the women’s march and the cause of women’s rights were connected to the more general issue of religious ideology. The CSOs and other participants who created and articulated the demands for women’s rights and safety approached and framed this issue in legal terms and using a public affairs lens. Their demands were drafted such that the women’s march and its cause would be evaluated in legal and political terms. On the other hand, user-generated disinformation tied this discussion and movement to their religious ideology and emulsified the event as having implications for how they worship and live. The insertion of “religion” as the broader discourse helped them divert attention away from the political issues of gender-based discrimination and violence to more abstract and imagined religious beliefs and faith issues. The following tweets/messages illustrate this technique:
- Most of these demands are transgressing the limits of God and violating God’s law, and hating what God commanded from what came in the Holy Qur’an. At its most in our time [sic].
- It is not enough to say the #feminist_manifesto_does not represent me, but the feminist statement is the fruit of embassies’ visits and incitement to destabilize our religion and the truth.
- Our true religion did not forbid anything. It contains perfect goodness, and our scholars have warned against giving women more rights than their Creator gave them, and we will hear worse than this statement in the future.
Ideological emulsification is effective when social media users can create disinformation anchored in the beliefs and values of a society. This also helps the users complicate an event, creating confusion about the interpretation of the event/cause/movement and increasing the cognitive load on the audience to resolve these complications and negotiate with multiple interpretations. This makes the public feel more confused and unsure about the event and the official narratives that CSOs and civic society workers published. This disinformation is often presented as the “hidden truths,” “true agenda,” and “unknown facts” about the event and the cause.
To spread disinformation in ways that avoid detection by social media requires using content, style, and formatting that lies in the gray zone. Content presenting disinformation as an alternate interpretation or personal experience story cannot be fact-checked, flagged, or removed by social media companies using their algorithmic models and techniques to detect fake news. Therefore, spreading these forms of disinformation is easier than circulating fake news.
Strategy 4: Deploying Emotions
Using emotions to appeal to the public through disinformation is very effective. The public is often persuaded as much through emotions as it is through rational debate and deliberation. Ninety percent of the disinformation messages in our data set consisted of references to emotions. Many tweets included the following words: fear, love, hate, afraid, and disgust. These words represented emotions and invoked feelings of insecurity, uncertainty, alienation, loss, and passion (for the religion).
What is interesting, as we will explain in the later section of this article, is the people supporting the march also used references to emotions in all their messages to counter the insecurities that the disinformation messages invoked. Their words of encouragement for the movement included hashtags: proud, pride, strong, courageous, brave, and love.
Emotions are an effective strategy to create disinformation. It has been argued that the architecture of social media sites promotes shallow information and reinforces online engagement based on rapid attention shifting and reduced deliberations. Such a structure and online behavior support the transmission of affect with greater ease. Though scholars such as Papacharissi argue that “…rationality has often superseded the import of emotional domain,” we argue that in the contemporary social media structures, conflict and drama are effective tropes to gather attention, and these are often communicated using emotions. Social media, including encrypted and cloaked communication spaces, are built to mobilize emotions and create spectacles, often witnessed in the form of likes, comments, retweets, and sharing.
This finding raises the following questions: Should CSOs and participants design strategic communication plans to create a spectacle around their cause for greater impact? How can CSOs weave together the values of rationality and emotion to sustain public engagement with their cause? And how can they create a media event to counter possible disinformation spectacles?
Our analysis of media content related to the march reveals that social media users played a crucial role in steering online discussions to support the event and counter disinformation. We will look at this “media spectacle” online users created to suppress disinformation narratives effectively.
Suppression through Mobilization
“There will always be disinformation. Change creates fear and insecurity, and the major goal of all the CSO [sic] is to initiate change in some way and at some level. So, we should be better prepared and know our work will be met with resistance and hatred!”
The user-generated media solidarity expressing support for the march and its cause overwhelmed the disinformation messages circulating in the Sudanese mediascape.
According to our analysis, in Sudan’s Twitterscape, hashtags (#wearewithyou) were trending during the day of the march and a few days after. The high volume of solidarity messages considerably suppressed the disinformation messages.
The cyberfeminists we interviewed described how they used social media to build transnational networks of solidarity and draw the world’s attention to the struggles of women in Sudan. They also tried to forge transnational solidarity with women’s movements in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Tunisia, and other Islamic countries. As one of the participants explained, “When you draw the attention of the world, it is bound to bring some changes. It pressurizes the government. Also, the CEDAW was created in collaboration with the UN, so we need international attention and cooperation to counter disinformation.”
In projecting an authentic representation of Muslim women and women’s movements in Sudan, CSO and civil society workers aimed to challenge global stereotypes about Islamic women being weak and suppressed. “We are not weak! We can talk about our problems and also solve them. Just because we demand our rights does not mean we are influenced by Western ideology. We want this for ourselves, western or not.”
Some of the strategies the CSOs and workers used to counter disinformation and sustain an authentic narrative about the movement and the larger cause of women’s rights in Sudan are summarized here:
- Sustaining efforts to populate the mediascape with positive and authentic content supporting the event and the larger cause of women’s rights.
- Repetition to create a sense of credibility. As social media relies on larger numbers and big data principles, it is important to repeat a narrative to establish its credibility. The media logic of modern communications systems bases the evaluation of credibility on the intensity of engagement—the number of likes, comments, followers, tweets, and retweets. An effective way to counter disinformation is to overwhelm the misleading narratives with authentic and correct representations and interpretations.
- Using humor, satire, and visuals to engage the public in a media economy that strives for attention.
- Developing official documents and circulating them on sanctioned platforms or through reliable channels often monitored by the participating CSO(s).
- Building transnational networks of support and encouraging influential opinion leaders and international CSOs to express support for the cause at the international level.
Based on this in-depth analysis of disinformation around the April 2021 women’s march in Sudan, we have developed a model of implication analysis that shows how CSOs can adopt strategies and adapt to evaluate the consequences of disinformation. This knowledge can help them develop an appropriate response strategy to control the implications of an already launched disinformation campaign against them and preempt future occurrences of such attacks.
We suggest using structured analysis techniques to evaluate the impact of disinformation on an organization and its reputation. In our work, we define structured analysis techniques as methods of analyzing risks by breaking down a complex problem into simple and smaller questions and then answering each question using subjective experience and knowledge from the field.
The first step in this process of evaluating the implications of a disinformation campaign involves answering the following questions:
- What is the intention of disinformation?
- What disinformation techniques are used?
- What are the practical implications of disinformation?
- Who are the actors creating disinformation?
- What channels of communications were used to circulate disinformation?
- What kinds of responses are suited to the selected channels of communication and the target segment of the public/audience?
Once the context of disinformation is established, the second step involves addressing questions related to the impact of disinformation on the organization, people affiliated with the organization, and the public.
The final step includes understanding how to evaluate the intensity of disinformation and design strategies to respond accordingly. Based on a detailed and qualitative analysis of the situation, disinformation can be categorized into three broad categories:
- High priority-
When disinformation has the potential to subvert the operations of a CSO and initiate legal/ judicial charges against it, it is categorized as a high priority. This form of disinformation campaign also can threaten public security, the safety of employees, and public order.
Action required– Senior officials of the CSO are required to take an active part in disseminating clarifications necessary to subvert disinformation.
- Medium priority-
When disinformation has the potential to influence and negatively affect civic engagement projects and works in a particular area, it is categorized as medium priority.
Action required– Involve senior-level communications staff to prepare press releases, social media content, and campaign activities to increase transparency and public engagement while asserting control of the CSO’s narrative and work.
- Low priority-
When disinformation has the potential to influence specific debates and discussions, personal communications, and sporadic online discourses about a particular event or an issue, it is categorized as low priority.
Action Required- To prevent low-priority disinformation instances from emerging and becoming a higher priority, the CSO must constantly monitor media dialogues, analyze trends, and involve the public through campaign activities to reinforce the public image of their organizations.
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 Many studies have demonstrated that in online spaces and networks lies, disinformation, and fake news travel faster and reach a wider audience than verified information (Vosoughi, Roy, and Aral, 2018).
 The dynamic nature of social media and its study makes it difficult for scholars to create generally applicable ethical protocols related to collecting and reporting this data. Given the sensitive nature of social media data and the sensitive nature of this study, all data is reported anonymously. Also, we have paraphrased tweets and other social media content to avoid identification.
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