You may have seen the hashtag #BlueforSudan trending on Instagram and Twitter, or perhaps you’ve seen people changing their profile photos to the colour blue. Sudan was in a blackout, while the world watched.
Earlier this month, Sudan’s military leaders have reached an agreement with the opposition alliance to share power until elections can be held. Until then, however, the country has faced deadly political unrest and since the military ousted President Omar al-Bashir in April, Sudan has been in turmoil. On 3 June 2019, what started as a peaceful protest resulted in the Khartoum Massacre (over 100 people killed and 70 raped). The internet in the country was almost completely cut off and censored, not only making it difficult to estimate the exact number of people killed and injured, but also making it almost impossible for the people of Sudan to share the hardships they were facing. Internet access has only been partially restored this week.
When an entire country has no means of communication to the rest of the world, and when every piece of information is censored, this inevitably leads to a delay in precise reportage from global news and media outlets. In this particular case, when the world failed to immediately report on a major crisis, social media used its power to take this story and make it go viral. If you’ve wondered why everyone’s Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts suddenly turned blue, this was to pay tribute to all those who died in the disputes—including 26-year-old Mohammad Mattar, who was killed in the Khartoum Massacre. At the time of his death, Mattar’s profile picture was blue, what soon became a symbol of solidarity with Sudan.
Suddenly, the hashtags #BlueforSudan, #Sudan and #TurnTheWorldBlue all went viral, urging Western media and people to pay attention to the conflict happening. Sudanese New York-based beauty and lifestyle influencer Shahd Khidir played an active part in raising acknowledgement for this by using her platform. She has posted a powerful photo of herself crying, asking everyone to raise awareness and share on the atrocities happening—having to break from her regular scheduled brand posts. Speaking to Screen Shot about how brands have reacted to this, Shahd says that while some were understanding, others pulled out of campaigns not wanting to work with her again—”But I am not upset it was important for me to raise awareness about the Sudan revolution and in essence I don’t really need to do business with brands that don’t support me”. Shahd has taken on the role of a reporter to speak out on these issues when the civilians in Sudan had no way of doing so. Through her persistence and determination, she spoke for those who couldn’t have a voice.
“I definitely feel that social media has been effective in the Sudanese revolution”, says Daad. Daad, a make-up artist and beauty influencer from New York is also one of the Instagram personas whose activism was prominent in bringing recognition and believes that social awareness impacts and educates the public. It’s also important to note that social media bringing awareness also leads to the donations of funds and resources.
But whose responsibility is it really to share and raise awareness? Most importantly, as social media users, we are often judged for being too political or not enough. In that light, do we owe it to always use our voice, no matter how big or small? Selective empathy comes to mind. The immediate reaction to the Notre Dame fire was, rightfully, heavily criticised and compared to the Sudanese crisis. Yet, the most difficult aspect of this all is the fact that politicians all over the world shared messages of solidarity for a building but failed to do so for citizens of a suffering country. And, if we must choose somebody to blame for the lack of awareness, who better than those paid to stay on top of current affairs but who decide that these issues are not significant enough to report on?
As this is the internet after all, when a story begins to circulate on a scale as large as #blueforSudan, trolling, fake news and exploitation is inevitable. By now, you must have seen clickbait posts on your social media, promising that for every follow, like or repost, a meal would be provided for the “starving Sudanese children”. The now-deleted Instagram account @sudanmealproject managed to gain over 1.7 million likes on such a post. While we question how 1.7 million users fell for this idea, we also need to question the logistics of this and how a like can provide physical resources needed to help. Newsflash—it cannot.
How do Instagram accounts such as @sudanmealproject benefit from this? @exposinginstascams is an Instagram account that sheds light on fake news and accounts circulating on the platform. It has successfully exposed accounts attempting to exploit the Sudan crisis. Screen Shot spoke to the 14-year-old account owner—preferring to remain anonymous— who managed to get @sudanmealproject to confess that their intentions are certainly not in Sudan’s best interest, but for self-profit. “Lots of people changed their profile picture to blue to raise awareness, but they didn’t understand they weren’t really helping”, said the @exposinginstascams account-owner, adding that others were just trying “to gain followers and likes”. With substantial engagement, these accounts can gain from advertising and selling on their account. And unfortunately, it doesn’t end here. Just type in ‘Sudan’ and ‘meals’ into your search engines on Instagram and look at how many accounts come up.
Social media has helped bring awareness to the conflict in Sudan. It also presented us with fake news and fake charities trying to benefit from this, which took away credibility from the real issue. “I think that some people are always going to be opportunists and there’s not much we can do but remain concentrated on the bigger picture”, says Daad. And since it is impossible to put an end to the exploitation of people in crisis, we must remain focused on the mission of helping wherever we can.
Sometimes it takes a little more than updating our profile photos or Facebook statuses, but we can use our platforms for the greater good when needed, the same way millions of Instagram users have managed to help bring awareness to Sudan.
After the news of the Christchurch terror attack broke, it was shocking but not surprising to see the tabloid press exposing the most sensitive parts of the tragedy. In this case, this was visual: both the Daily Mail and the Sun’s websites featured the live-streamed footage of the shootings themselves. The Sun also included an animated GIF of the video on its homepage, which becomes all the more troubling and abhorrent when we remember that it’s the U.K.’s most widely read newspaper.
In her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag discusses the politics of what it means to look at tragedy, both in the literal, visual sense, and also to read about and engage with it. Sontag says that to regard tragedy more broadly is to read about it, and engage with details of it. Beyond the visual realm, it’s notable that the Mail also allowed readers to download the manifesto of the terrorist attackers, encouraging readers to engage in a type of looking that wasn’t directive of prescriptive (will they be looking out of curiosity? To scrutinise? To become radicalised?). Even if editors had their own idea of why readers should engage with it, it’s worth considering that once the artefact is out in the world to be looked at, they may not have control of how it is used.
But attack after attack, tragedy after tragedy, violence upon violence, outlets that go far beyond the right wing press must continually reflect and interrogate what responsible reporting looks like. For me, the Sun and the Mail are examples on the extreme end of the spectrum, as there’s no doubt in my mind there has been a historical institutional judgement that clicks are more important than respect for the dead. What’s more, their editorial decisions fit into a wider trend of continued racist and Islamophobic reporting. But what about our ‘responsible’ outlets? We should be critical of the calls that are made in how black and brown bodies are portrayed in cases of violence—not to mention acknowledging when reporting has been done responsibly.
Images of grief, as demonstrated in The Guardian but also commonly in the New York Times, go a long way in articulating the gravitas of a tragedy without dehumanising those whose lives have been lost. During the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, the New York Times opted for images of tributes, vigils, flowers and cards, and the BBC has also overwhelmingly used this narrative technique to articulate the grief after Christchurch. Showing images of protests—as seen by the comprehensive video coverage of the movement by the Guardian—can also convey that we should be angry, without having to show graphic detail of violence itself. In images where grievers are distressed, it’s important that these are consensually captured with the subjects’ knowledge, as otherwise journalists run the same risk of objectification and stripping autonomy of those in pain. Eyewitness accounts, which were also used by the Guardian in the wake of Christchurch, can equally responsibly explain events from the perspective of victims and survivors, which gives power back to them in how tragedies are told.
The fault lines between necessary and sensationalised information can be blurry, and decisions often need to be made about what will best explain the gravitas of a tragedy with due respect. In one of the Guardian’s first pieces of coverage on the Christchurch attack, it ran a headline with the quote “I saw people drop dead”, which could be deemed as emotive rather than unacceptably graphic. Both the Atlantic and Vox also ran coverage that discussed the content of the attacker’s manifesto, despite not hosting it in its entirety.
It is not always clear cut. However, the fact that these questions may be difficult to navigate shouldn’t deter outlets, and the general public, from continually posing them. We must be critical of how tragedy is relayed to us—what we should see, and what should go unseen.
Micha Frazer-Carroll is arts and culture editor at gal-dem and writes for HuffPost U.K.