Fake Social Media Activism Is Hurting Real Sudanese Advocacy Efforts

Some Instagram accounts are allegedly taking advantage of the civil unrest in Sudan to gain more followers

Sudanese citizens are in the midst of a crisis. After the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in April, the country’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) currently holds governmental control. Over 100 people have been killed, the government has enforced a complete Internet blackout, the capitol has shut down in protest, and activists and allies are mobilizing to signal-boost the conflict and prompt world leaders to act.

But some Instagram accounts have been accused of taking advantage of the civil unrest in order to gain more followers.

Last week, people across social media platforms turned their profile pictures blue to raise awareness about the ongoing humanitarian crisis. On the surface, many activists thought this was a great idea — and took part in it themselves, asking their followers to follow suit. Hashtags like #BlueForSudan began trending on Twitter, a nod meant to honor Mohamed Hashim Mattar, a 26-year-old who was allegedly shot and killed by the Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces during a crackdown on the nation’s capital, Khartoum, on June 3. Amnesty International Australia said on Twitter that blue was Mattar’s favorite color.

“I think it's brought a lot of attention to Sudan,” Mark Hackett, the executive director of Operation Broken Silence, a nonprofit that supports programs Sudan's war-torn regions, told MTV News of the social media movement surrounding the Sudanese crisis. “It's also unfortunately brought some misinformation.”

Hackett says the blue profile pictures are opening people’s eyes to the crisis in Sudan, a nation that has been rocked by civil unrest and genocide for decades. But when something like this begins gaining so much attention on social media, “there are people out there that [will] try to use that for their own gain,” Hackett said.

One account in particular — @SudanMealProject — gained nearly 400,000 followers on Instagram in less than a week, before Instagram removed it for violating its policies.

“We’re committed to donating up to 100,000 meals to Sudanese civilians,” the account’s bio read, according to the Atlantic (the account has since been taken down). The only post read, “For every STORY REPOST this post gets, we will provide one meal to Sudanese children, and you will help spread awareness on what’s happening in Sudan.”

The account didn’t say how they would give the meals to Sudanese children. It didn’t explain if it was a recognized aid agency. It was purportedly preying on people who wanted to help; someone who was logged into the account told the Atlantic, “What I am obtaining is followers and exposure,” but did not elaborate on how the account would give meals to Sudanese people in need.

@SudanMealProject wasn’t the only account to attempt to take control of the narrative for its personal gain: there were dozens of fake accounts with similar names, and, while many of them have been taken down, some still remain up. According to CNN and an analysis on the Wayback Machine, one account named @sudanmealprojected amassed 10,200 followers before changing its name to @naughty.jokes_/ and sharing only memes (it has since been taken down). @sudanese.meal.project is still live, with no posts available and over 8,000 followers. Its highlight reels are full of streetwear fashion.

Instagram noticed, which is why the company removed the account, and others, for violating its policies.

“We are continuing to look into this matter, and we already disabled a number of accounts we found in violation of our policies,” Stephanie Otway, the communications manager for Instagram told MTV News in a statement.

Still, the recent uprising of social accounts exploiting humanitarian efforts scares people who are actually running verified nonprofits.

“For people who have been scammed, or are they see a lot of scams online, they tend to just walk away,” Hackett said. “Not just on this issue, but on a lot of issues. So that's the only bit of a headache for us because we have to constantly speak out and say, ‘Hey, we're here. We're here to help, and this is what we do. Do you want to get involved with us? That's great. Do you want to on something else? That's great too. You should be aware that there's people out there that are trying to use us for their own gain.’” According to Hackett, those with the ability to can donate time or money to verified nonprofits, like Operation Broken Silence, Save the Children, UNICEF, and the International Rescue Committee.

All the while, turmoil rages on in Sudan. And as Sudanese beauty influencer Shahd Khidir told Teen Vogue, “It’s important to spread awareness. It’s important to tell everyone what’s going on. Considering the fact that the Internet is completely blacked out, the Sudanese people have no connection with the outside world. So we have to connect them and spread information about their struggles.” It’s also crucial to vet the organizations that claim to be helping, so that you know your support is directed at the right place.