In April 2014 I was standing in the ruins of what had been the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) office in a town called Bentiu in South Sudan. The latest civil war was only five months old, the fighting still fierce, escalating in fact and the struggle for territorial control meant that strategic locations like Bentiu were changing hands every few weeks. The destruction of the town’s infrastructure was profound. This included the compound where our team had lived and worked for years. The building had sustained heavy shelling damage, there had been fire inside and anything of value was looted. As I took it in my eyes rested on writing on the walls that had not been there before. All along the damaged walls were messages of hate. “Death will come to all Nuer scum” signed with a name and age, *Chol, age 16. Next to a message that read “God hates Dinka like rats” signed with a name and age, *James, age 17” And so it went. Messages written in local languages and in English, in schoolboy style, messages left to each other from the generation that was supposed to be leading South Sudan into a peaceful future.
As we know now, this was just the beginning of a war that South Sudan is still, today six years later, trying to end. It was also early signs of a campaign of hate speech that would serve as fuel to the violence rolling out across the country. Those handwritten messages, although horrific did not have much of an audience. What came later was the widespread use of radio and social media, used to instruct people to take up violence, to spread false information to trigger escalations, and to whittle down groups into increasingly smaller and more entrenched identities. It soon became clear that the spread of hate speech was becoming nearly as dangerous as the proliferation of weapons. NP’s violence reduction program needed to take this aspect into account to tackle the overall issue in an impactful way. To this end, we drew upon rumor control, one of the tools of unarmed civilian protection (UCP).
NP originally developed rumor control work in South Sudan because the level of technology was so low, communities were reacting to strictly limited information. In villages with no phone or internet access, groups would displace from their homes, abandoning their crops, separating from loved ones based on rumors that they had no access to verify. Utilizing NP’s capacity to move between villages and to draw upon widespread, nonpartisan relationships, it became increasingly possible to bring information and more importantly to bring credible messengers together. In the context of the war, while these micro-local rumors continued to be a challenge, there was a surge in the use of digital technology in conjunction with the hardening of messaging. We adapted by supporting local protection groups to access technology to x-check and counter message, to raise awareness about the impact of social media, both good and bad, and the prevalence of false news. While chasing down hate speech traveling at the speed of light has been interesting and, in many cases, impactful, the one thing that remains consistently true is that there is nothing more important than human relationships. Trust, credible messengers, and consistent contact are essential to breaking down rumors and hate, whether sitting under a mango tree, broadcasting on radio waves, or going viral on the internet.