ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A Sudanese warlord who led an attack last month on protesters that left more than a hundred people dead is, it turns out, a Facebook personality. He is using the platform to promote himself as a strong-yet-kind leader. Pro-democracy activists want him booted off the site. And so far, Facebook says no. Here to talk with us about it is NPR's Aarti Shahani. Welcome back to the studio.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Hi.
SHAPIRO: Tell us about who this warlord is and what the relationship is with Facebook.
SHAHANI: Yes. So his name is Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti. He's got a long history of violence. He was a member of Janjaweed, the militia considered responsible for the genocide in Darfur. He was a senior aide to the former dictator and most recently, as you mentioned, the massacre. This is the man who's using Facebook to whitewash his image. He's got a bunch of pages dedicated to making him look good. In one post, he promises to raise teacher salaries in Sudan. In another, which went up soon after the recent killings, there's a lovely video of him standing on his Jeep with throngs of men, women and children dancing around him.
The message there and in many others is Hemeti is the protector of the nation, and the protesters are the unpatriotic ones. Sudanese activists find this sickening. They've petitioned Facebook saying, hey, you booted off American right-wingers like Alex Jones; please boot off this warlord who is way, way worse. Ahmed el-Gaili, a Sudanese international law expert who's based in Dubai - he says Facebook is letting itself be a propaganda machine for Hemeti and his paramilitary group.
AHMED EL-GAILI: This is giving a pulpit to what is essentially a terrorist organization. Even if older posting are pictures of cats and dogs, they do not belong in Facebook or in any other forum.
SHAPIRO: Is Facebook responding to this?
SHAHANI: Yeah. The company has a response, and it's fascinating. I had a long talk on the phone with a man at the company who leads their work on dangerous organizations. Facebook was not comfortable with recording, so basically to recap what he said, he said, look; there is a big difference between an Alex Jones and this warlord. Jones is not a governmental official; neither is ISIS, which Facebook has built artificial intelligence to root out. But the warlord could be considered a representative of the state.
Hemeti started at the fringes of Sudanese society. He's since climbed into the mainstream. He was appointed interim vice president, second in command in Sudan. So Facebook is hesitant to intervene. Many governments are worried that the company is too powerful already. The Facebook official says if we go ahead and ban someone who it could be argued is the representative of a sovereign state, that could make many governments even more wary.
SHAPIRO: So Facebook is choosing not to get involved in this particular issue. Do they have an ethical responsibility, though?
SHAHANI: So plenty of people who've tracked extremism online say yes and that Facebook should know better. And they give the example of Myanmar, OK? As early as 2014, human rights groups there were telling Facebook extremist anti-Muslim leaders are exploiting your platform. They're building followings. They are dangerous people. Facebook ignored the warnings until, fast-forward, these extremists activated their followers online and called for attacks against Rohingya Muslims. Last year, Facebook acknowledged it was slow to respond to what became a genocide in Myanmar. So people watching Sudan say, Facebook, you should know better. Violent leaders in volatile regions start soft, flip the switch. That is a familiar playbook.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Aarti Shahani. Thanks a lot.
SHAHANI: Thank you.
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