The Aftermath of the Sudan Meal Project Scam: the Charity Craze That Exposed Social Media Activism’s Dark Side BY GIANNA JIRAK

September 15 2019

If you are a frequent user of Instagram, you may remember a dramatic influx of this picture on your friend's and family’s story:

This viral "charity" craze was prompted by the now deceased account “sudanmealproject,” which was revealed to be a scam.

When the account was up and flourishing, their feed contained one sole post. That post claimed that, for every person who followed the account and shared the post on their Instagram story, the Sudan Meal Project would provide one meal to starving Sudanese children. Their limit was 100,000 meals. This barren account spread like wildfire on Instagram, with notable activists and celebrities alike sharing their support.

From the start, the scam’s premise was impossible. These people would not have been able to transport that sheer number of meals, or any meal for that matter, into Sudan. It was a country in chaos, and civilians were not allowed to travel there. In fact, all it would’ve taken was a quick Google search to realize that their border was closed at the time.

In addition to this telltale sign, there were no donors listed in their bio, and the account only had one post. They did not have a website, or any previous charitable history. In hindsight, it is baffling that so many people fell for it.

So how did this seemingly obvious scam catch so much traction?

“Because it was easy to participate in this supposedly worthy charitable cause,” said Professor Terri Towner, a political science professor at Oakland University. “Instagram users simply had to double tap and repost on Instagram. This is known as "slacktivism." A social media user supports a cause with a like, share, comment, or repost and then that's it - there is no real commitment or effort allocated to the cause. I am sure some Instagram users simply reposted with little research or thought about the Sudan Meal Crisis.” When we blindly share, repost, and support without fact checking, we become complicit in these scams.

In time, a few people began demanding proof of the account's donations. Taylor Lorenz, a staff writer for The Atlantic, direct messaged “sudanmealproject” and confronted them about the situation. In those messages, the account revealed that they developed the scam to gain followers.

A screenshot of Taylor Lorenz's exchange with the person behind the "sudanmealproject" account.

Besides Lorenz, the account “sohini_niyogi” commented on “sudanmealproject” account's post, asking them to prove that they were giving food to the suffering. They responded, claiming that they did not know their account would grow so fast, and that they were struggling to find a way to pay for the meals. They claimed that they were currently thinking of an alternative plan to raise money.

A post exposing the Sudan Meal Project scam created by "exposinginstascams."

These comments became public knowledge on the account “exposinginstascams,” which specializes in exposing charity scams on Instagram. In an interview, Nico [last name redacted], the owner of the account, explained how he figured out that it was all a scam. “So I knew it was fake from the start, but I needed to gather evidence,” said Nico.

He does so by using the following protocol: first, he examines the domain on their email address (he can use this information to see if they have a website). After that, he checks to see if they have any previous posts. A lack of regular posting is a huge red flag, he says. Next, he checks for past usernames (to see if they were a different type of account before). Finally, he does a reverse image search on their posts to see if they are stolen.

His advice on protecting yourself from scam accounts is simple -- just use common sense. “People should ask themselves simple questions before reposting,” Nico said, “or even ask a friend for a second opinion.”

He has confirmed two Sudan-focused charities to be real. One being UNICEF Sudan, and another account being “unitedtohelp.” Besides sending money to these organizations, you can also contact your local senator and encourage them to support the U.S. granting aid to Sudan.

Some argue that, despite the creator's ulterior motives, this hoax did have some positive effects. It’s wide reach opened up discussions about the atrocities being committed in Sudan all around the world and prompted many people to “go Blue for Sudan” -- the act of changing one’s profile picture to blue to symbolize solidarity and spread awareness of the Sudanese Humanitarian Crisis. This in turn led to more media coverage of the harrowing problems in Sudan -- Teen Vogue, CNN, The Guardian, and BBC all reported on the social media movement as well as what was happening in Sudan, among countless other news outlets.

On the other hand, this scandal caused a slew of copycat accounts to flood Instagram, all of them exploiting the chaos in Sudan just for followers. Accounts such as “NikeSudan,” “sudanrapeaid,” and “sudan_we_are_with_you" all used the same method to trick Instagram users. All of these accounts, in addition to "sudanmealproject," infiltrated the social media activist community and turned it into a vessel for fake news.

This exploitation decidedly speaks to the pitfalls of the digital age. We live in a society where one can easily exploit a country’s crisis and be aided with the blind participation of well-meaning masses who don’t take the time to conduct a simple fact-check.

“Online activism is very easy - anyone can become an activist on social media,” said Towner. “One can simply change their profile picture, share a video of a protest, and develop a unique hashtag. Therefore, social media users themselves need to be careful of what they are liking, sharing, and commenting on. If it's not real, don't share! We need to do a better job of becoming more media literate.”

We are in the golden age of social media activism, and this scandal should serve as a cautionary tale. Activism should not be blindly partaken in, for ignorance is the enemy of the cause.

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