A few weeks ago, social media was painted blue, with the word ‘Sudan’ appearing in every new hashtag. This was the result of news spreading across social media platforms of the large-scale violence against protestors in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. This news dominated Twitter and Instagram as users all over the world sought to raise awareness of the violence taking place amidst a media blackout in Sudan itself. But as with every social media craze, the outcry only lasted a week, two at best, and the world has fallen silent about Sudan again. This leaves two questions – what happened in Sudan to cause such a huge social media storm, and does social media activism ultimately do any real good?
Protests in Sudan were not a recent occurrence, but have been ongoing since December 2018. Inflation soared to 63.87% in June, and in December the government, lead by President Omar al-Bashir raised the price of goods and cut essential subsidies to bread and fuel. Protests against this move spiralled into a call to remove Bashir from office, after his thirty-year tenure. In April 2019, protestors demanded that the military force Bashir out, and on 11 April the military announced he had been overthrown and a council of generals had assumed power. This council – named the Transitional Military Council (TMC) – did not bring an end to autocracy, but instead acted as a heavily militarised continuation of Bashir’s regime in itself, headed by Janjaweed militia leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (better known as Hemeti).
Strikes were still taking place in the capital, from small firms to whole industries, followed by a two-day general strike at the end of May. This general strike may have been what pushed the military to act, as on 3 June, the Sudanese security forces launched a violent crackdown on protests in Khartoum outside the military headquarters, killing hundreds. The Central Committee of Sudanese doctors reported over 100 killed and 500 more wounded, but official numbers cannot be confirmed due to a shutdown of media outlets across Sudan. Civilians were massacred, women raped and bodies dumped in the River Nile by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a branch of security born from the Janjaweed militia that has been committing war crimes and human rights abuses since the 2003 outbreak in Darfur.
Despite the brutal nature of these events, there was little coverage by mainstream news outlets. This can partially be put down to a media shutdown by the government in an attempt to limit news on the atrocities taking place. NetBlocks, a civil society group which works in cyber security and digital rights, confirmed this, but through the use of VPNs this was bypassed and word of the events spread on social media platforms.
The statement that this is the ‘social media generation’ usually has negative connotations, but in this event it proved beneficial that what was happening in Sudan gained traction on Twitter and Instagram before it reached legitimate news outlets. #IAmTheSudaneseRevolution and #StandwithSudan dominated Twitter and Instagram feeds, and #BlueforSudan became the most popular, in recognition of Mohamad Matter, a student of London’s Brunel University, who was shot during protests on June 3rd whilst protecting two women from Sudanese militia. Users changed their profile pictures to the same colour blue to raise awareness and show solidarity with the victims of the massacres.
But what, if anything, does this achieve? The people of Sudan could not see this display of solidarity across the internet. Social media activism is useful for two things: raising awareness, as mentioned previously, and creating an avenue for people to communicate and promote ways to help when our governments and politicians fail to do so.
A petition calling for the UK Government to condemn the use of repressive force by the Sudanese military received just under 23,000 signatures, way short of the 100,000 needed for it to be considered for debate in Parliament by our MPs, who seemed to be mostly absent in voicing condemnation or call for action. Confirming mine and many others scepticism of the government, who seem to only call out human rights abuses when it suits them.
Significantly, just before the crackdown took place, the leader and deputy of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who supplied weapons to the TMC and are all US and UK allies in the region that are uneased by the thought of revolution. Further to this, the UN pulled staff out of Sudan, calling it ‘relocating’, leaving the African Union to hold an emergency meeting with no UN support. The last time the UN pulled out of an international crisis of this kind was during the genocide in Rwanda, which is deemed their largest failure. Social media activism was therefore necessary when world leaders and Intergovernmental Organisations failed to take significant action. Instagram helped spread the news of a protest in London, which took place on 15th June outside the embassies of the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. With each profile picture that was turned blue, two more would follow suit.
But the burden of keeping a movement alive is not one that social media can yet handle, and it shouldn’t have to. Despite its useful purposes, when dealing with matters on an international scale and without being on the ground, there is a tendency for many people to visualise a tragedy through the lens of social media much like they would any other internet craze. Within a week, profile pictures returned to normal and the Sudan hashtags disappeared. Not everyone in the ‘social media generation’ takes the steps to extend their activism offline, and this is where social media falls short. In a life and death situation, like the one in Sudan, posting on Twitter and Instagram and causing outcry for a week or two is not enough to remedy the horror that the Sudanese people are facing. But it is not necessarily the responsibility of the everyday social media user — all we can do is mitigate Sudan’s suffering in isolation, whilst we await real government and institutional action and reform.