Sudan, journalism, democratic values

18th June 2019

A number of people on social media started complaining this week that there was no reporting on the current conflict in Sudan.

The accusation is untrue, and yet it is widely perpetuated across social media platforms. To disprove the claim, one has but to type “Sudan” into the search bar in Google. Almost every mainstream media outlet has been reporting on it since at least March 2019. Those who raise the claims believe that this omission is a damning indictment of today’s society, which they view as good vs evil, poor vs rich and Global North vs Global South. Moreover, many of them do not read conventional news sources, but prefer to get their information from social media platforms. This episode gives us a glance at the worrying direction our political culture is taking.

Attacks on the mainstream media have become commonplace in populist rhetoric in the past few years and have spread to all levels of the political spectrum. Both left wing and right wing activists complain that the BBC is biased against them. US President Donald Trump regularly attacks news outlets such as CNN and the New York Times, for unfavourable coverage of him and his policies in an attempt to cow media outlets and to delegitimise them. The push to swing media coverage in favour of populist politicians by gaslighting organisations that do not sycophantically praise them has created distrust between the wider audiences and the media.

The attacks on the media and the judicial system, for example in the US, the UK and Israel, poses a very real threat to our democracy. So what can the ordinary man or woman do to help safeguard democratic values? Critical engagement with the world around oneself is a good starting point. As we have seen with the case in Sudan, people have been all too happy to propagate disinformation without giving it a second thought.

The general population’s general lack of interest in news analyses and love for short, punchy social media trends leaves us vulnerable to the simple solutions proposed by ever more tech savvy populist politicians and fringe groups. The populist’s manifesto can easily fit into a 140 character tweet, an Instagram story video, or a Facebook post. These messages are easily consumable by a screen-obsessed audience. A democracy needs an engaged and educated population in order to function. The lack of interest and initiative on the part of many social media users consider content that they share, and the “trending” herd mentality actively spreads disinformation and fake news.

Social media and smartphones give people an easy way to keep up to date. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Centre, 45% of Americans get their news from Facebook. The result of media being increasingly consumed through social media and third parties means that many obtain their information through a digitalised game of Chinese whispers as people share and reshare shorter and retold versions of a story. These pass through echo chambers of like-minded people, or groups of friends, making breaking out of the mindset all the harder as one is saturated with the same images and narratives on every social media platform.

Half-baked accusations of social injustice caused by a plethora of governments, organisations and individuals is the populist’s weapon of choice. The over-use of words like “terrorist”, “islamophobic”, “alt-right” or “Fascist”, to insult and delegitimise opponents takes away from the powerful meanings that they hold. The willy-nilly mudslinging by those who claim to speak for “the people” tears at the fabric of our democratic values.

The claims against the media in the case of Sudan feed into the downward spiral of the erosion of democratic institutions. There are two reasons that Sudan related stories are not on the front page of every paper. First, Sudan is relatively inaccessible. Second, on any day, the headlines compete with a range of other news stories, some of which may have greater local impact, and will therefore provoke more intense coverage. The reason is not a lack of caring, or callousness or racism on the part of journalists, as those complaining sometimes allege.

Sudan is notoriously hard to get in or out of. Before the fall of President Omar al-Bashir, it was a repressive and authoritarian state. With the clashes now, it is even more chaotic. Journalists must mostly make use of local stringers on the ground, releases from NGOs like Amnesty International, official press releases and previous knowledge and analyses of the Sudanese government. Arab states in 2011 were awash with local and international journalists, civil society groups and activists that were supported internationally. They were well connected enough to get the word of protests out immediately.

In the rest of the world, damaged oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman have caused another spat between the US and Iran. The implications for regional stability could be far greater should the hostilities escalate. Locally, the news is occupied following the British Conservative Party premiership race. The outcome of this power struggle will determine the future of the relationship between the UK and the European Union.

The response to the unrest in Sudan is but one example of the apathy of many social media users to engage with the world around them. As a society it leaves us exposed and weak to resist extremist fringe ideas that have seeped into the mainstream. It gnaws away at our liberal and pluralistic democracy. We must encourage critical thinking in the world as a safeguard against populist and extreme discourse. This process starts with people that are interested and engaged with the world around them.