Sudan and the Instagram Tragedy Hustle

The Sudan Meal Project and similar accounts claim to be helping—but they’re really just a ploy to get more followers.

As the political crisis in Sudan deepens, Instagram users are flocking to accounts that claim to be helping. @SudanMealProject, the largest of these accounts, racked up nearly 400,000 followers in less than a week; it is joined by hundreds of similar accounts with copycat names such as @SudanMealProjectOfficial, @SudanMealOfficial, @sudan.meals.project, @mealsforsudan, and @Sudanmealprojec.t, each of which has amassed tens of thousands of followers.

“We’re committed to donating up to 100,000 meals to Sudanese civilians,” @SudanMealProject’s bio read. The account’s only post promised, “For every STORY REPOST this post gets, we will provide one meal to Sudanese children, and you will help spread awareness on what’s happening in Sudan.”

But no one can send meals to Sudan in the way the viral Instagram accounts claim. “It’s incredibly difficult to send meals to Sudan,” said Joe English, a UNICEF communications specialist. When reached for comment via Instagram direct message, the administrator of @SudanMealProject could not provide any proof that the account was working with any aid organizations, nor could the administrator back up any of the claims made in the account’s posts. “What I am obtaining is followers and exposure,” the administrator for @SudanMealProject told me. “… I love how the left likes to twist these stories.”

The administrator later deleted the account’s post, updated its bio, and changed its handle to @SudanPlan. After The Atlantic contacted Instagram, the company removed the account for violating its policies. Many copycat accounts are still live. “We will continue to look into this matter and disable further accounts we find in violation of our policies,” an Instagram spokesperson said.

Sudan has been ravaged by violence since its former president, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted in a military coup in April. On June 3, the conflict boiled over when scores of protesters were killed, including 26-year-old Mohamed Hashim Mattar. His Instagram avatar at the time of his death was steel blue, and after he was killed, the color became a symbol of the pro-democratic uprising. Hundreds of thousands of users have made their profile photos blue in a sign of solidarity.

In addition to misrepresenting their intentions, these accounts are sowing misinformation. A since-deleted post on @SudanMealsProject, copied and shared elsewhere, stated that “more than six million people need urgent food assistance”—but that figure refers to South Sudan, not Sudan. It also stated, “Near-famine conditions are predicted in four of Sudan’s states.” This also is true of only South Sudan, which has been a separate independent nation since 2011. “It’s difficult to argue that [these campaigns] are effectively raising awareness when they’re using facts and figures relating to an entirely different country,” said English.

Even the very premise of the Sudan Instagram accounts is flawed: While many of the initial protests last year in Sudan did focus on fuel shortages and rising food costs, they quickly became about freedom and democracy, not food. According to English, the latest estimates suggest Sudan is home to 5.5 million food-insecure people—but, he said, “there has not been a famine declaration in Sudan since the early 2000s.”

When tragedy breaks out, it’s natural to turn to social media to find ways to help. But legitimate aid organizations—most of which don’t have the social-media prowess of top Instagram growth hackers—are no match for the thousands of Instagram scammers, meme-account administrators, and influencers who hop on trends and compete for attention on one of the world’s largest social networks.

Some Instagrammers change their name, avatar, and bio to a trending term in order to gain followers. For example, earlier this year, when a photo of an egg became the most-liked picture on Instagram, many users capitalized on the moment by changing their display name to World Record Egg and their avatar to the egg. Because users typically click on the first accounts they see in the search box, hundreds of thousands followed copycat egg accounts—which then swapped their display name and avatar after the trend died out.

One of the Sudan accounts, @sudanese.meal.project, is promoting a streetwear-clothing-resale group. Another, @SudanMealOfficial, has changed its name several times before.

Nico—a 15-year-old whose last name The Atlantic is withholding because of his age—founded an account called @exposinginstascams to shine a light on these practices. He has used his account to report people promoting fake environmental charities, and when he saw posts about Sudan pick up last week, he recognized the scam immediately and began posting about it to his feed. After he saw some Sudan-related accounts asking for money via PayPal, he created a GoFundMe, with all the money going directly to the International Rescue Committee. He hopes it can provide people with a more legitimate way to donate. As I write this, it has raised just $21.

As Nico and others have started to name bad actors, some of them have already begun cannily cashing in on the backlash, changing their handles to names like @fakesudanmeal.project and @fakesudanmealprojects_. “Share our account to spread awareness that [@Sudanmealproject] was fake,” a story post by @fakesudanmeal.project reads.

According to English, the best way people can help is by amplifying the voices of actual Sudanese activists and organizations already working in the country, such as Save the Children, UNICEF, and the International Rescue Committee. And, at the least, users should fact-check posts before sharing them.