Sudan: Fake RSF Twitter account pronounces Hemeti dead amid verification chaos
Elon Musk's decision to remove blue ticks from verified Twitter accounts has accelerated the spread of misinformation in Sudan, with almost a million people viewing a tweet announcing the death of Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commander General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.
Thousands of verified Twitter accounts have now lost their blue ticks as the Twitter CEO has brought in a new policy that means users have to pay $84 a year to have a tick by their name.
As verified users were being stripped of their checks, an account purporting to represent the RSF, complete with a blue tick, tweeted on Wednesday night that Dagalo, commonly known as Hemeti, had died in the ongoing fighting in Sudan.
On Saturday fighting broke out between Hemeti's RSF and the Sudanese armed forces, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, as relations between the two political factions broke down.
Clashes have since taken over towns and cities across the country.
The tweet was written in Arabic and had been viewed by almost a million people and retweeted nearly a thousand times by the time of publication.
The account has only tweeted nine times. Two of those tweets are replies to the real RSF account. One of them is the false announcement of Hemeti's death. Another is a video purporting to show the unmasking of an "agent" of Burhan working for a radio station controlled by the RSF.
You then have to go back to 2013 to find five re-tweets of posts from the Rassd News Network, an alternative Egyptian media news source set up at the time of the 2011 revolution in Egypt.
An hour before the fake Hemeti tweet, the real RSF account, which does not have a blue tick, tweeted that the Sudanese army had taken down the paramilitary's website and "broadcast immoral messages, which is new behaviour for it."
The RSF account accused the army of using state institutions including the public telecommunications agency of spreading misinformation and carrying out "dirty work that violates the privacy of citizens".
War in the digital space
The World Health Organisation said on Friday morning that 413 people had been killed and 3,551 wounded over six days of fighting, which has been particularly intense in the capital, Khartoum.
As with any modern war, the digital space is intensely contested, with misinformation rapidly spread by a series of social media accounts.
At least 900 potentially hijacked Twitter accounts are being used to retweet content posted by Hemeti, according to the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).
The accounts are boosting the RSF chief's statements as part of an online propaganda war with the SAF.
“The accounts followed a similar pattern: after remaining inactive for years, many became active again in December 2022, tweeting a string of characters lifted from Wikipedia pages, then boosting tweets from Hemeti and the RSF,” DFRLab said in a report.
The hijacked Twitter accounts are being used to make the RSF and Hemeti “appear more popular than they actually are on the platform by boosting their tweets and appealing to a more international audience via English-language tweets”, DFRLab said.
Hemeti is known to have previously employed Ari Ben-Menashe, a former Israeli intelligence officer now working as a Canadian lobbyist.
In February, he was reportedly looking for a spin doctor in Europe to help with his communications.
The paramilitary leader is close to both the United Arab Emirates and Russia, countries that are connected to a network of communications and public relations specialists, including those linked to the Wagner Group.
The real RSF Twitter account and Hemeti's own account have self-consciously used the language of international mediation in their statements before and during the deadly conflict.
Celebrities, public figures, and government organisations are among the users that have lost their verification checks as part of Musk's new changes, with copycat accounts like the fake RSF one popping up instead.
The New York City Government account got in a row with a copycat account on Friday, with both claiming authenticity.
Musk has admitted to "personally" paying for some celebrities, including author Stephen King and basketball player Lebron James, to keep their blue ticks.