Although only about one-third of Sudan’s population has access to the internet, social media plays a key role in the political life of the country. Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags were instrumental in organizing the 2018–2019 protests that demanded freedom, peace, and social justice and ended with the removal of the president and establishment of a transitional government.
Some outside the country have also noted the power of social media to influence public opinion in Sudan. Over the past four years, Russia has used many tools and tactics to advance its interests in Sudan, ranging from using its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to block sanctions against the country to sending shipments of food and, most recently, the refusal to explicitly condemn the military coup in the country. Sudan is among the top recipients of Russian arms, and trade between the countries reached $500 million in 2018. In 2020, Russia signed a deal to establish a military base in Port Sudan, to compete with the world’s powers in the region.
But in recent years, Russia has also started to tap the power of social media platforms, to influence and sway public opinion in Sudan through disinformation campaigns, and to generally polish its image by highlighting humanitarian activities in the country.
In October 2019, Facebook removed a coordinated network of accounts originating in Russia that appeared to promote positive news about Russia to Sudanese users. According to the report issued by Facebook, the content included posts about local news and events in Sudan, including Sudanese-Russian relations, Russian foreign policy, and Muslims in Russia. One of the articles distributed on Facebook claimed that the U.S. and U.K. were working on disinformation campaigns about Putin. Another article questioned the veracity of a photo of the deposed president al-Bashir behind bars.
In May 2021, Facebook removed another group of Sudanese pages linked to Russia. While the tactics and style of these pages were similar to the previously removed accounts, the language on these pages directly advocated for Russian interests. For instance, one post read that Russia is ready to send humanitarian help, but some in power were making the process difficult. The goal of this content was to sway the Sudanese public and promote the Russian naval base in east Sudan.
In some cases, Russia did not intervene directly through social media but rather offered consultation services. According to reports by CNN and The Guardian, Russia advised Sudan to launch a campaign to delegitimize the protests, using fake news and videos that depicted protesters as anti-Islam, pro-Israel, and pro-LGBTQI. A leaked letter addressed to the Sudanese president revealed that he did not follow this plan, and a CNN report revealed that M-Invest, a Russian company registered in Sudan, which has ties with the Russian defense ministry, was involved in the development of the strategy.
These campaigns had a real impact on Sudanese society, both at the local level and abroad — although not exactly how Russian officials may have wished. Once exposed, the campaign sparked a backlash in the public. Albashoom, a Sudanese Facebook page that covers political events, dedicated an entire video to exposing the Russian disinformation campaign. Sudanese newspapers and media ventures, including Altaghyeer, and Beam Reports, wrote about the Russian disinformation campaign, though analysis or data about the impact of these interventions on local people was scant.
The Sudanese government has not commented officially on these interventions or opened an investigation into the removed Russian pages. But in November 2020, the government tightened Article 23 of the cybercrime law, which prohibits the spread of fake news. Although the official Sudanese response was tepid, the campaign did spark censure from the U.S. government. In July 2020, the Office of Foreign Assets Control decided to put sanctions on Yevgeniy Prigozhin, citing him as the financier for the Internet Research Agency, a Russian group that has engaged in online influence operations around the world at the behest of the Russian government.
Given the degree of international meddling through social media, platforms such as Facebook should improve and expand monitoring of the Russian intervention in Sudan. One way to do this is to collaborate with local partners. For example, the local media venture Beam Reports has a fact-checking section that could be linked with Facebook to speed up and expand the process. Doing so will enable the platforms to better understand the local context and improve content moderation. Currently, the company relies on its internal investigations to remove fake accounts and pages, and Facebook claims that Russia is ranked as the number one producer of misinformation.
Sudanese newspapers and activists should also work to understand and analyze these interventions in a more detailed way that clarifies the real impact on the ground. Lastly, the government should address misinformation and consider it as a possible threat to its security — otherwise, foreign intervention in Sudan’s next public elections is almost guaranteed.