Mohamed Suliman, a senior disinformation researcher at Northeastern University's Civic AI lab (Boston), who also holds an Engineering degree from the University of Khartoum, argues that tech giants like Facebook and Twitter have an obligation to deplatform the RSF militia amid Sudan's ongoing violence...
Long before the outbreak of war in Sudan, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) prepared by launching a media campaign aimed at cleaning up their bloody public image and normalizing the group’s existence. The militia’s experienced social media team has effectively used tech platforms to achieve this goal, while tech companies overlook both the past and present criminal record of the militia, ignoring calls to remove their content and accounts.
Many around the world only learned of the RSF’s existence in recent weeks as the Sudanese violence dominated headlines. Perhaps counterintuitively, this does not reflect ignorance of world events; rather it emphasizes the growing necessity of recognizing the roles of PR and disinformation efforts on modern battlefields.
The name — the RSF — is in fact the product of rebranding efforts by a far more infamous group: the Janjaweed militia. The latter is known far and wide for unthinkable war crimes and atrocities, ranging from a campaign of public mass rapes during the Khartoum massacre, to the deployment of children to fight in Yemen at the behest of the Saudis, to the use of civilian objects including residential flats and hospitals as battle shields.
Regrettably, despite these violations, tech companies continue to provide platforms for the militia on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube, emboldening them to spread propaganda and steer public opinion in a bid to normalize their actions and conceal their crimes. When these companies were petitioned to remove militia content, they not only refused but also verified the militia accounts—a step that reveals their recklessness in considering the serious impact of their decisions on aiding war militias.
Amidst the ongoing war, the RSF militia has utilized these tech platforms as powerful disinformation tools to twist facts on the ground and spread propaganda. For instance, the official Facebook page for the militia, along with other allied pages, claimed that the militia shot down a Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) military plane. This claim was debunked by fact-checking organizations, which exposed the photo used as old and taken from the Syrian war. The militia’s Twitter account also violated privacy rights by sharing a recorded video of Sudanese military captives testifying, presumably under duress.
Tech company platforms clearly prohibit organizations that promote or engage in any form of violence, even extending to offline activities. For example, Facebook has a policy for dangerous organizations and individuals, Twitter removes accounts and content by perpetrators of violent attacks, and YouTube disapproves of violent extremist and criminal organizations.
But as the violence presently sweeping Sudan makes clear, these policies do not pass muster.
When it comes to the RSF specifically, the removal of content on a case-by-case basis, in the absence of broader page deletions and account removals, is inadequate. These platforms must designate the RSF militia as violative of their policies and community standards. There are several precedents where these platforms took similar measures against less harmful actors and individuals in other parts of the world. Ultimately, tech companies must recognize their power and stop allowing the RSF militia to use their platforms as a media arm to further its violations.
Tech giants must recognize that we live in an age when the rapid evolution of tech has a concrete impact on the battlefield, and must enact policy accordingly. And they should not fail the Sudanese people by permitting a war militia to jeopardize the long-term interest of building a democratic country with a unified army.
Mohamed Suliman is a senior researcher at the Northeastern University civic AI lab. He also holds a degree in Engineering from the University of Khartoum
Suggested citation: Mohamed Suliman, Tech Giants Must Deplatform the RSF Militia to Stop Aiding Their Atrocities in Sudan, JURIST – Academic Commentary, May 10, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/05/big-tech-sudan-war/.
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