How the viral hashtag influenced coverage of Sudanese protests
by Rachel Alexander
In December of 2018, protests broke out in Atbara, a northern Sudanese town, over the rising food prices. Other cities followed suit, and protests erupted across the country. What started as an opposition to rising bread prices turned into demands for Omar al-Bashir, the president since 1989, to step down (CNN). The reason that word of these protests spread across the country so quickly was because of the rise in popularity in social media since similar Sudanese protests in 1964 and 1985. But while social media aided in the dissemination of these events within the country, international news sources seemed to be lacking in coverage on the protests (African Affairs).
While the news of the protests may have been very pertinent to people close to the Arab community, for some it seemed that the news was absent. “I understand that there are journalists who are writing and reporting on Sudan, and have done so more than usual recently: for example, Ben Wedeman and Nima Elbagir have both filed to CNN from Sudan,” Emily Tamkin, CNN Public Editor said. “I was in a newsroom during the protests that resulted in Omar al-Bashir’s removal, in April, and I was not assigned to write about it; I did, however, file multiple pieces on the burning of Notre Dame, in Paris” (Columbia Journalism Review).
However, at the beginning of June 2019, the hashtag #blueforSudan began trending on Twitter and Instagram. #BlueforSudan started in memory of Mohamed Mattar, a 26-year-old who was killed during an attack in early June 2019. The specific shade of blue rose in popularity because it was the Instagram profile picture of Mattar, but soon became the symbol to increase global awareness of the events taking place in Sudan.
This caught the attention of many people on the other side of the world, and was a gateway for people online demanding why there was not more coverage on the Sudan Uprising. This rise in social media activism, as well as nationwide internet shutdowns and a gap in international news coverage on the protests creates a unique situation in the media surrounding Sudan and raises some questions.
What role did the #blueforSudan movement play in the international spread of information on the Sudan Uprising?
There will be an increase in international coverage after the #blueforSudan movement became popular. This is because the use of the hashtag across social media platforms increased global awareness of the protests and prompted more people to care about the current political state of Sudan.
The concept of framing is very pertinent to the media coverage of the Sudan Uprising. Not only were media outlets themselves framing what was covered and what was not, but people’s own intake of news and where they get that from framed their perception of what is happening in Sudan. “A variety of research studies have shown that the way an issue is framed affects how the public interprets the issue, and who the audience members think is responsible for fixing problems” (Rosenberry, 2017). Framing is defined by scholar Robert Entman as highlighting specific details or sides of an issue to sway interpretation and assessment of that issue (Entman, 2017). Monitoring other news sources that did not report on the Sudanese protests meant that other western news sources did not report on Sudan either (African Affairs).
"A variety of research studies have shown that the way an issue is framed
affects how the public interprets the issue, and who the audience members
think is responsible for fixing problems."
- Rosenberry, 2017
Sudan is seen as not free in terms of internet access. Internet access is limited and expensive, but was critical in mobilizing protests in Sudan. Journalists and activists were arrested for their online presence and restrictive laws were put in place. Social media platforms were crucial for documenting and spreading protests since traditional media did not cover them. New cybercrime laws were passed by the government to increase restrictions on the internet (Freedom House). The deteriorating economy in Sudan and rising cost of living and food only makes access to internet even worse. In Sudan, just a month of internet costs almost half of the Sudanese average monthly income. This means that internet penetration is at 29.6 percent, due to high prices, low amounts of smartphones and electricity shortages in Sudan. However, it is social media activism has allowed the information to disseminate quickly and more broadly than before. Social media has been an aid in keeping the protests alive longer than similar ones that occurred in 1964 and 1985. Protest slogans such as “‘you arrogant racists, we are all Darfur’” went viral and created social cohesion that would not otherwise exist. But while protestor groups may be unified in their opposition of president Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese military remains the “unmovable object” (African Affairs).
Content removal became more prevalent and may contribute to an initial lack of international knowledge on the events taking place in Sudan. While there are many blogs, online news outlets and social media pages that seek to post uncensored information, they still face censorship and the risk of banned material. Many people now share information on WhatsApp, which uses less data, but has caused less people to check in with online news sources for information. It is also popular because of its privacy features. But despite internet shortages, social media has played a crucial role in the organization and spread of protests throughout the country. Sudan saw an increase in participation by citizens compared to similar previous protests due to social media activism and how widespread this crisis is (Freedom House).
While no journalists have been killed in Sudan in 2019, about 100 have been arrested (Reporters Without Borders). Newspapers and media sources are being silenced to prohibit the dissemination of information in print, so many local sources turned to social networks to aid in the circulation of their stories. While al-Bashir was ousted months ago, his media restricting policies still stand. Out of 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Sudan was ranked 175th. Internet for mobile devices was completely cut off on June 10.
One of the ways this blue photo and hashtag reached a wider audience was due to a post on Instagram Sudanese beauty influencer Shahd Khidir, who currently has 97,000 followers on the platform. It read:
It’s really hard being an influencer and sharing information that is ‘off brand’ and not worthy of the ‘feed’ but I cannot hold this in anymore. I am at my office crying because I have so many emotions in me and I feel horrible. There’s a massacre happening in my country Sudan’s and a media blackout and internet censorship for four consecutive days. There is no objective media sharing what’s going on expect for @aljazeeraenglish which had their offices shot down.
My friend @mattar77 was MURDERED by the Rapid Support Forces. My best friend was in hiding on June 2 and that’s the last time I spoke to him. He was missing for 4 days and when I got in touch with him he said: ‘I was caught, beaten and abused and humiliated and arrested and had my phone confiscated from me. I am injured currently.’ And all I could do this post this.
I am sorry to all companies I am running campaigns with but my editorial calendar is currently on pause. I am willing to refund all and everything right away. Please, just send me an email.
To my followers/supporters who this is too much for I am also sorry but my regularly scheduled content/reviews is also on pause.
If this offends you, I am sorry. But I need to speak out and share this in a time like this.
If you want to support me please share this information as widely as possible and don’t be silent. Be an ally because we need your help. And tune into my stories for more information. THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY HAS BEEN SILENT.
Social media has played a huge role in the international dissemination of information regarding the Sudanese protests. Despite internet blackouts across Sudan, social media has played a large role in the organization of protests and has provided a place for news outlets to turn to when their printed publications were censored. But even after president Omar al-Bashir was removed from office, his restrictive policies on internet and news remained intact. On the other hand, because the protests began with a marginalized group otherwise unknown to the rest of the world, western news sources did not initially show concern for what was happening. The use of social media has led to more participation within Sudan in the protests and aided in worldwide spread of information, as seen in the #BlueForSudan movement.
In order to determine the role that the hashtag #blueforSudan on Instagram and Twitter has played in the spread of information of Sudan protests, it is important to understand how it affected the coverage of the protests in the news.
It is noteworthy that the hashtag originally appeared in English on Twitter on June 11 (The Guardian). In order to understand the role the hashtag played in aiding the spread of information about Sudan, it will be important to examine articles posted before and after the hashtag went viral. The articles will be examined for the date they were posted and the section of the news they were under. Another aspect to note is how many articles were posted per month. This study will specifically look at coverage in the New York Times, as it is one of the top five largest news sources in the world.
The time period of the search will go from December 2018, when the protests began, to July 2018. The keyword used is simply “Sudan.” This is so that all information regarding the Sudan Uprising will be included. Articles pertaining to Sudan but not the current Sudanese conflicts being discussed will not be included. Results will be analyzed based on the articles per month posted before and after the hashtag went viral. If there are more articles per month after June 11, then conclusions may be drawn that the movement sparked by the hashtag had an effect on the knowledge of conflicts in Sudan. If the number is the same or lower, conclusions may be drawn that there was little to no effect.
The content of these articles is also very important to examine how the #blueforSudan movement affected New York Times coverage of Sudan. In order to effectively do this, one article from December, February, April, June and July each will be analyzed based on detail of the content and length of the article. This article will be determined based on what the New York Times search tool regards as the most relevant article for that month. However, it should be noted that this is a much more subjective category than simply looking at how many articles were written and should therefore be regarded as such.
From December 19, 2018 to June 10, 2019, there were 58 articles in the World section, six in the U.S. section and six in the opinion section. And from June 11, 2019 to July 31, 2019, there were 53 articles in the World section, one in the U.S. section and three in the opinion section, all of these pertaining to the Sudanese protests. That is 70 total articles over 173 days for the first time section, and 57 articles over 50 days in the second time section. Before the #blueforSudan movement spread, there were only 13 more articles published than there were after, however that was over the span of 123 more days than from June 11, 2019 to July 31, 2019. That means that before the movement, there was an average of about 12 articles a month published in the New York Times about Sudan, but since the movement began, there has been an average of about 34 articles a month on the protests.
The graph shows how many articles were published in the New York Times per month. When the protests first began in December, there were only three articles. There was a spike in coverage in April with 26 articles, more than twice what any month had seen before that. There was another spike in June with 23 articles, and July has had the most at 40 articles pertaining to the Sudanese protests.
The most relevant December article, Sudanese Protests, After Days of Violence, Turn Anger Over Bread Toward Bashir, went into great detail about how and why the protests began. However, there was no mention of the protests being violent in nature, besides in the headline, until the sixth paragraph, where it stated that tear gas was fired and anywhere between nine and 28 people were killed (Sudanese Protests, NYT). This article is approximately a five minute read at 1,083 words. It should be noted that this article was published on December 24, 2019, five days after protests broke out in Sudan.
The article chosen for February was Facing Protests, Sudan’s Leader Declares Yearlong State of Emergency. It is approximately a three minute read and is 753 words. This article is primarily highlighting that Omar al-Bashir declared a state of emergency in attempt to end protests, but does not explain how inhumane the protests turned until the tenth paragraph.
Because there was a surplus of articles written in April for the first time, it was best to look at the headlines and deckheads of the most relevant articles written instead of just one in detail. There were seven articles written about al-Bashir or that had some mention of his overthrow. There were four articles that looked into the lives of protestors and the background of the protests. And there were three articles that shifted the focus to the U.S. or countries involved with Sudan.
The article from June was Sudan’s Military Abandons Talks and Opens Fire on Democracy Protesters. This was written on June 3, 2019, the day many died, including Mohamed Mattar. This article is a six minute read and is 1,476 words. It gives first hand accounts from protest survivors and goes into great detail of the internal government battles happening in Sudan. It also gave examples of tweets from various people who witnessed the attacks.
"The military council has gotten addicted to
shedding the blood of citizens and to committing massacres."
- Sudanese Professionals Association, New York Times, 2019
The July article is titled Killing of Student Protesters in Sudan Sets Off New Unrest, and Worry. It was written on July 30, 2019 and is a two minute read at 494 words. This is the shortest of the examined articles, however it still is able to capture the gruesome details of the Sudanese protests. “‘The military council has gotten addicted to shedding the blood of citizens and to committing massacres,’ the Sudanese Professionals Association, the country’s main protest movement, said” (Killing of Student Protesters, NYT).
It is clear from these findings that there were more articles per month after June 11, 2019. Before June 11, there was an average of only 12.1 articles per month in the New York Times, but after that date the average rose to 34.3 per month. That spike of coverage seen in April was most likely due to the fact that that is when former president Omar al-Bashir was overthrown from the government. But despite this spike, there has still been a clear increase in coverage since the #blueforSudan movement started. From December to early June, there was an average of one New York Times article every couple of days. But after the movement spread across Twitter and Instagram, there was an average of over an article every day. That is almost three times the amount of information being published and therefore more knowledge of the protests in Sudan.
This increase in coverage aids in proving the hypothesis that the #blueforSudan movement did increase global coverage and awareness on the Sudan protests. When the movement hit social media, it increased global awareness of the violence the Sudanese people were experiencing. Other important moments in the protest, like the ousting of Omar al-Bashir also affected how much coverage there was in the New York Times, but dropped again shortly after. Large changes like these are newsworthy and important that news sources cover them, so it is clear why there was an increase in coverage here.
The link between the start of the movement and the increase in coverage on the protests may not be direct, but the findings point towards it being a probable connection. The movement across social media did prompt more people to be curious about and show concern over the Sudanese protests, so that may have translated to more demands for information on the violent state Sudan is in.
In terms of content of the articles, they were almost always written with great detail and first hand accounts of the protests in Sudan. However, the December and February articles both failed to mention the severity of the brutality under later in the article. Framing come into play here because the New York Times chose to not include those details in the initial information presented in those articles. There also was a great amount of detail in the more recent articles, but it is very subjective as to if that is more detail than in the others or just different details.
If there had been a way to examine how many views each of the articles analyzed had received or a way to see where in the newspaper they were placed, that would have been very helpful. This would have shown if viewers increased after the movement, decreased overtime as the protests went on or were unaffected based on time and events.
While it is not clear if the link between an increase in coverage of Sudan in the New York Times and the #blueforSudan movement is direct, there is still a clear increase in articles written after June 11, when the hashtag was translated to English. Based on the findings, it can be assumed that it was either Mohamed Mattar and other’s deaths on June 3 that caused the increase in coverage, or the #blueforSudan movement which was inspired by Mattar’s death.
The concept of framing is important to this topic because it applies both to how the New York Times chose to write about Sudan in the articles they wrote before the movement and after. When people joined the #blueforSudan movement, there was an increase in coverage, possibly due to the fact that people began questioning why they were not seeing more stories on the issue. It also applies to reader’s own framing of what they chose to read. If someone only reads the sports section of the news and only follow their friends and sports account on social media, for example, it is likely that they did not see any coverage of Sudan until the #blueforSudan movement and then questioned where all the coverage was.
Regardless of whether readers knew about what was happening in Sudan before or after the #blueforSudan movement, there was still a clear increase in coverage during the month that Omar al-Bashir was overthrown and again in June when Mattar and others were killed. It was most likely due to these events that more international awareness was brought to the protests in Sudan.
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