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Researchers Create South Sudan Hate Speech Lexicon


FILE - A U.N. refugee agency official speaks to civilians during a distribution of food items in Yei, South Sudan, Nov. 15, 2016. Yei became a center of country's renewed civil war, gripped by killings among dozens of ethnic groups. PeaceTech lab identified 10 words frequently used that insult members of different tribes and can lead to violence.

In a 14-part series on hate speech that aired recently on VOA's South Sudan in Focus, several South Sudanese activists and professionals in the diaspora said they thought social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook were increasingly being used to incite hatred and violence at home.

Researchers from PeaceTech Lab Africa, which was created by the U.S. Institute of Peace, identify specific words used online, try to make the users realize the damage done by those words and encourage people to use alternative language that promotes dialogue.

Hateful discourse online has major consequences on the ground in South Sudan, according to Theo Dolan, director of the Nairobi-based PeaceTech Lab. Rather than simply acknowledge that hate speech exists, Dolan said, identifying and contextualizing the words used in hate speech could help prevent violence.

"Hate speech can originate through a diaspora community in the U.S. or Australia, and very quickly cross borders and oceans through different platforms from mobile phone calls, on family calling another or through WhatsApp," Doland said.

"It gets very quickly around so that with friends or family calling each other from the U.S. to South Sudan, that inclination can very quickly spread," he added. "It doesn't necessarily rely on just internet access."

Educating communities

PeaceTech lab interviewed people in South Sudan and in the diaspora, and identified 10 words frequently used that insult members of different ethnic tribes. With that information, Dolan and his team put together a South Sudan lexicon on hate speech to help educate communities about the origins of each word and also to provide alternative, non-offensive words.

Words like "cow," "coward" or "kokora," or even mentioning the year 1991, which immediately evokes memories of the 1991 Bor massacre, are among the terms appearing in the report. Dolan said all of the inflammatory words are accompanied by alternative words, such as "federalism," or "cattle keepers."

"One person's hate speech could be another person's common language. And so there will always be disagreements on which terms are considered hate speech and which are not. But what we try to do is to build consensus and put some context around the term so that there would be a better understanding and awareness of hate speech," Dolan said.

The survey found that almost half of all offensive and inflammatory terms already exist on Facebook. News websites and blogs were a distant second, generating about 28 percent of inflammatory words. Dolan said researchers were somewhat limited in the data they could collect about hate speech.

FILE - WhatsApp and Facebook app icons are shown on a smartphone.
FILE - WhatsApp and Facebook app icons are shown on a smartphone.

"There is a lot that is under the surface in private Facebook groups and WhatsApp that is completely encrypted that we can't monitor, but we can basically measure volume of posts based on the terms that we have identified and the volume of their use," Dolan said.

Avoiding inflammatory words

Dolan believes that by identifying certain trigger words, conversations that South Sudanese hold on the internet can change for the better. With the project, South Sudanese can find a way to express themselves and their frustrations without employing inflammatory words, "to try to prevent violence from happening through better understanding and mapping hate speech online; to actually have an early warning, early response mechanism," Dolan said.

The word "coward" is ranked seventh in the South Sudan hate speech lexicon, and is used to describe people who refuse to take up arms. Instead of calling someone a coward, Dolan's group suggests an alternative term could be used, such as "peaceful people" or "peaceful citizen." Dolan said that simply replacing inflammatory language commonly found in hate speech could lead to big changes in the country.

Many South Sudanese in Juba think hate speech in social media fuels violence.

Juba resident Abraham Sasa said that if a person does or says something wrong, people should not judge the whole tribe by that person's offensive statement.

"Saying disturbing things to people, attacking a certain community and pointing out negative aspects about them, that is automatically hate speech," Sasa said.

FILE - South Sudan President Salva Kiir, in his end-of-the-year speech in Juba last month, called on all South Sudanese to end hate speech in social media, saying it was tearing the country apart.
FILE - South Sudan President Salva Kiir, in his end-of-the-year speech in Juba last month, called on all South Sudanese to end hate speech in social media, saying it was tearing the country apart.

Thoughts of the future

And Sasa said if South Sudanese continued to speak about one another with hate, no good would come of it for future generations.

Mary Tabu, a resident of the Muniki residential area of Juba, said hate speech prevents a country like South Sudan from growing because it is still undeveloped. She said people should stop killing, raping and stealing other's people's property, and should focus on economic development.

"Fighting or killing each other, like you are going to steal people's property, it is not good in the community. It leads our country down, which means our country can't grow," Tabu said.

Another Juba resident, Francis Mame, believes that if South Sudanese are able to accept their failures and ask for forgiveness, there will be total peace in the country. Mame said people should learn how to accept their mistakes and move on.

In his end-of-the-year speech in Juba last month, President Salva Kiir called on all South Sudanese to end hate speech in social media, saying it was tearing the country apart.

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