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The veil of ignorance and proxy wars - Digital Threat Digest

PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.

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The last time I wrote about the conflict in Sudan it had been twelve days since the fighting had begun, today it is just over two months since it started – 73 days to be exact.

The previous digest looked into the emerging conflict and how both the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) were using social media as a tool to further their interests. Weeks on, social media not only continues to be used by these two sides but by other actors far beyond its borders.

The point of this digest is twofold:

One – investigating the Sudanese online environment while also being Sudanese has reminded me that ignorance truly is bliss. Working on a country you call home often blurs the lines of objectivity and emotion – I have found myself craving a sense of ignorance, to not know what I know is really happening.

Two – while ignorance is bliss, I do think that sharing what is happening in Sudan is needed. And so I hope to shed light on how social media is being used, and highlight that it’s not just a bunch of bot-like accounts sharing Tweets that’s the threat, it’s the fact that Sudan is another example of a modern digital proxy war.

The concept of a researcher working and studying their own environment isn’t new. In anthropology it’s called ‘anthropology at home’ wherein anthropologists—or in older literature, ‘native anthropologists’—study their own society and in turn, face certain difficulties and dangers as ‘insiders’. Challenges include not being able to keep the distance needed for unbiased observation, and in my case, and as with most digital conflicts, the feeling of hopelessness that you’re just behind a screen with no power to solve these issues. At the same time, I do think the point of view of an insider is helpful – there’s a certain level of motivation to keep working, keep searching.

As digital investigation analysts we are often researching ‘outsiders’ or ‘others’ and so we don’t necessarily have to sympathise or relate – it’s really just a job. This approach has certain pros, but I think we often forget that some of the conflicts and environments we look into involve humans who have lost homes, lives or are in danger in some way, and so I think ethical considerations and a sense of respect towards the work we do should be central to carrying out digital investigations. While I crave a slight sense of ignorance, I think the impact of the contexts and conflicts we study on human lives is something we should keep in the back of our minds – just a little reminder that there’s more to it.

Today, Sudan’s online environment continues to shape itself into a modern day proxy war – reminiscent of the Cold War that saw Africa in the middle. Libya and Syria are unfortunate examples of where Sudan is likely heading mainly via the intense involvement of malevolent regional and international powers. To date, several influence operations run by foreign actors on social media to amplify narratives that bolster both the RSF and the SAF have been identified.

The SAF has used the conflict as an opportunity to build their online infrastructure, and several domestic influence operations run by SAF supporters have encouraged direct targeting and doxing of alleged pro-RSF civilians, alongside activity from pro-SAF influencers calling for civilian involvement and calls to pick up arms. The SAF has had to be quick to digitally arm themselves and this conflict has proved that other regional and international powers do not shy away from ‘helping’. The RSF came into this with a well-established digital footprint and their use of digital marketing firms has already been extensively reported on. They too continue to churn out narratives glorifying violence and incorrectly label this war as democracy (Hemetti and the RSF) against Islamic extremism (Burhan and the SAF).

Digital warfare now constitutes as a key feature of the modern day conflict, blurring the line between the online world and the real world where calls to arms online have devastating consequences in the physical world. Understanding this connection is as vital for those working on social media as it is for governments, donors, and policy makers who need to incorporate such findings into conflict mediation.

More about Protection Group International's Digital Investigations

Our Digital Investigations Analysts combine modern exploitative technology with deep human analytical expertise that covers the social media platforms themselves and the behaviours and the intents of those who use them. Our experienced analyst team have a deep understanding of how various threat groups use social media and follow a three-pronged approach focused on content, behaviour and infrastructure to assess and substantiate threat landscapes.

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