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RADIO TAMAZUJ - 11 Oct 2016

Atrocity photos – fake and real – increasingly used by S Sudanese propagandists

South Sudanese communities online are increasingly sharing extremely graphic and often horrifying photographs of purported atrocities as the security situation in the country deteriorates. Some of these images are authentic and depict actual victims of violence in South Sudan whilst others are taken from other contexts and are deliberately used to fan ethnic hatred.

Although the use of such images is not entirely new – for example, images of the Bentiu massacre of April 2014 have circulated widely in recent years – the increasing numbers of reports of killings and brutalities in South Sudan in recent weeks has resulted in an accelerated and renewed use of such images online.

Social media platforms have gained increasing albeit still limited importance in South Sudan in recent years because of the advent of more affordable smart phones and because of the survival of mobile phone networks in areas where other forms of media such as FM radio never existed or have gone off-air. The collapse of most of South Sudan's independent media houses has also added to the importance of social networks as means of sharing information amid an absence of fact-checkers.

A key example of how propagandists are using atrocity images is the recent effort to circulate photographs of massacres perpetrated by Boko Haram in west Africa, claiming that they are images from South Sudan. Tactics of this kind are not limited to South Sudan; propagandists in Syria have similarly appropriated images and videos of earlier killings in Iraq, Mexico and elsewhere.

In an incident yesterday, South Sudanese Facebook users circulated an image of a severed head posed next to hacked up severed limbs, suggesting that the image was evidence of a war crime perpetrated against a particular ethnic group. However, the features of the severed head in the photograph did not appear to be South Sudanese, nor was the uniform of a police officer standing on the right-hand side of the frame.

According to a Reverse Google Image search, the image of the mutilated corpse had already been used online in non-South Sudanese contexts. It therefore appears that the image was lifted from another website by a South Sudanese and deliberately circulated as a way of inciting violence and fanning ethnic hatred.

South Sudanese diaspora sometimes play a critical role in circulating such false information and propaganda. In this case, the photo was uploaded to Facebook by Adol Ijong, a South Sudanese living in Rochester, Minnesota, USA, and shared by others. Adol provided no explanation as to why she had used the non-South Sudanese atrocity photograph and wrongly implied it was an image from South Sudan.

Other images circulated among South Sudanese online recently may be authentic, showing actual South Sudanese victims, but are posted without any description as to where the photographs were taken, when, or by whom. This makes it difficult to determine whether a photograph is legitimate versus when it has been appropriated from another context.

For example, state TV assignment editor and anchorman Garang John circulated a set of images on his Facebook page on Monday purporting to show civilian victims of a recent rebel attack. Yet he provided no explanation of how he had obtained the purported massacre images nor any explanation or caption on the photograph itself. One of the images that he shared was small and grainy and showed the bodies of at least 13 people, but there were no clear indications that the photograph had been taken in South Sudan.

Moses Magok Chol, a Facebook user who also shared this image commented, “Sad truth..... death on the highway. Juba -nimule.” But again he did not say where the image had come from.

The lack of detail or context provided in relation to purported atrocity photos means that they are easily misappropriated even when they do appear to be authentic. For example, the website Nyamilepedia re-posted a photograph from the same incident on the Yei-Juba road but claimed instead that it was a photo of a family killed by government forces near Torit.

The re-appropriation of the photo did not go unnoticed. Facebook user Bul Ajak Chol condemned the misleading use of the photograph by Nyamilepedia saying, “Stop lying to the public! You know where you copy and pasted this picture on your wall. Thousands of people already shared it before your propaganda decision.”

Sometimes Facebook users also implicitly call for acts of revenge and violence when sharing atrocity photos. A South Sudanese journalist associated with the state-run TV shared photographs on Monday of a wounded child who had survived the massacre on the Yei-Juba road after his mother was killed in front of him. “How would it be like if the Dinka community unanimously agreed to react to this shameful act? Damn all bastards...” he commented.

There are different views about the appropriate use and place for sharing such photographs. Some observers see it as an important way of telling the truth and raising awareness. Ajak Deng Chiengkou, Executive Producer at SBS Dinka, a diaspora-run Dinka-language radio service commented, “Sickening to see such heartbreaking images... Whoever is behind such horrendous attacks need to know that death or killing of innocents can never help them achieve whatever they are looking for. Failure can be blamed at the top leaderships of any side but South Sudanese shouldn't suffer like this.”

On the other hand, other Facebook users are also concerned about the dignity of victims depicted in the photographs and also sometimes the lack of information about the sourcing of these photos. A Facebook user in the diaspora, Daniella Valentino wrote, “Are the pictures of dead people that I am seeing online from RSS [Republic of South Sudan]? Who took them and why that person was left alive by killers? What do people want to achieve from showing those pictures and do they have permission from victims families? I need to know are pictures from RSS??”

Photo credit: Illustration by Brian Perry for CNN

Related reading:

How Newsrooms Handle Graphic Images of Violence (Nieman Reports)

Death toll of Yei-Juba road ambush rises to at least 30 (Radio Tamazuj)