Last November, reports of a massacre in Kishishe, a tiny village in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo began making the rounds on social media. A Rwanda-supported rebel group called the March 23 Movement (M23) was accused of the crime.
The massacre quickly sparked controversy. While M23 representatives and Rwanda-based commentators downplayed it, the Congolese government and its supporters did the opposite. Speculation on the death toll varied widely – from 8 to almost 300.
Over a week after the massacre, the UN’s peacekeeping mission in DRC did its own investigation, reporting at least 131 victims. The count was mostly extrapolated from sources interviewed at a UN base near Kishishe, and seemingly represented an arithmetic compromise.
Yet the controversy around Kishishe proved a stark reminder of how information warfare – fuelled by the meteoric spread of mobile internet and social media – is now an increasingly important part of conflict dynamics in eastern DRC.
Rumour, hate speech, manipulated or erroneous images, and inflated body counts have all spread like wildfire during the current M23 crisis, with both the Congolese and Rwandan militaries heavily involved.
Observers and analysts are not taking this new reality into sufficient consideration. Instead, some have uncritically reproduced narratives strategically deployed by the warring factions, inadvertently becoming a part of the war’s information ecosystem.
To avoid becoming pawns in this information war – which can impact events on the ground and shape how we think about the DRC conflict – there is a need for more thorough, on the ground verification and fact-checking of violent incidents.
Nobody respected this most basic rule of war reporting for Kishishe, which is perched in the forests of Bwito, an isolated chieftaincy. Other than the UN’s findings, there has still been no independent investigation conducted in situ.
It is also imperative to resist the seduction of mono-causal explanations – from foreign meddling to Congolese state weakness – of the M23 and wider DRC conflict, especially when they stem from the warring parties’ own playbooks.
The M23 is led by Congolese Tutsi and is part of a long line of Congolese rebel groups with close ties to Rwanda. The group was considered defeated after its last major rebellion a decade ago, but resumed fighting in late 2021, capturing a rapidly expanding territory north of the city of Goma.
Two main narratives currently dominate the landscape of information warfare on the conflict: one is clustered around the Congolese government in Kinshasa, the other is pro-M23 and pro-Rwanda.
The pro-Kinshasa side buys into a long-standing narrative that ascribes all of DRC’s woes to meddling by resource-hungry foreign powers. The M23 is considered to be a mere puppet manipulated by its master – the government of Rwanda.
The rebellion is also seen by this side as the epicentre of violence and instability in eastern DRC – a storyline that conveniently ignores the death and destruction caused by the other roughly 120 armed groups operating in the region.
By contrast, supporters of the M23 downplay Rwanda’s support to the rebellion. They dismiss reports from the UN Group of Experts on DRC that have extensively documented such backing.
The pro-M23 side – highly popular in Rwanda – instead places bad governance in DRC at the core of the debate. Rather than foreign powers, it is the weakness of the Congolese state and army that they say is to blame for the violence.
Also to blame, this side claims, is the FDLR, a rebel group that emerged out of the former Hutu-led Rwandan army implicated in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis. It fled to DRC after the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front – now the ruling party in Kigali – took power.
M23 supporters highlight UN expert findings on FDLR collaboration with the Congolese army. And they say the Hutu group continues to pose an important threat to Rwanda and Tutsi civilians in DRC – if not through firepower, then as a vessel to spread genocide ideology.
This side believes the M23 expresses legitimate grievances of the Congolese Tutsi community around their security, property, and the hesitant return to DRC of Tutsi refugees from neighbouring countries.
There is truth in aspects of both narratives, yet neither captures the full reality. Rather than accounting for the multiple synchronous drivers of conflict, these accounts trade in single explanations and therefore represent a form of information warfare.
At a closer look, foreign meddling and Congolese state weakness are not mutually exclusive explanations for the conflict, nor are they sufficient for grasping the complexity of the violence.
The fact that the M23 receives support from Kigali does not exclude the group from expressing grievances that are genuinely felt by the Congolese Tutsi community. It also does not exclude that the rebellion itself remains essentially Congolese.
The security of Tutsi civilians has been a key battleground in the current information war. The M23 rebellion has triggered a new upsurge of anti-Rwanda and associated anti-Tutsi sentiment in DRC, leading to incidents of violence, including lynchings.
Here too, the online environment amplifies real-life tensions, intensifying its speed and connecting hate speech from disparate sources – diaspora members, opposition politicians in Kinshasa, and armed groups in the east.
The online environment amplifies real-life tensions, intensifying its speed and connecting hate speech from disparate sources.
The pro-M23 and pro-Rwanda camp has seized upon this to propagate the claim that a genocide against the Tutsi is under way, demonstrating Kinshasa’s failure to protect its own citizens.
The government in Kinshasa is, meanwhile, treading a difficult line between calling on its citizens to refrain from popular violence and harnessing a wave of anti-Rwanda sentiment to reinforce its position ahead of elections later this year.
Other examples of information warfare abound. As the conflict has worsened over the past year, the Congolese and Rwandan militaries have traded all kinds of accusations, from incursions and the arrests of soldiers to the bombing of each other’s territories.
This struggle over fact and meaning creates real effects on the ground. It can intensify tensions, spark troop movements, and shape the flow of resources to government and rebel forces alike.
This ecosystem also affects how we come to think and speak about violence, and what we identify as the main causes of and solutions to conflict in the east – conflict that has displaced more than 5.5 million people.
Analysts and reporters working on the M23 and broader DRC conflict need a heightened awareness of this complex information environment and the fact that they are inevitably a part of it.
They should be asking questions like: Which voices are more extreme or more moderate? How is history being manipulated? What narratives are coloured by belligerent propaganda?
Yet observers have instead become an integral part of the online and offline war of words.
For example, UN human rights officials have amplified pro-M23 and Rwanda narratives. In November, a special adviser on genocide prevention raised important concerns about anti-Tutsi violence in DRC – but also identified the FDLR as the main driver of violence in the east.
This is despite the fact that, while the FDLR once constituted a formidable force of 20,000-30,000 combatants, it is now a shadow of its former self. Much of its leadership surrendered or was eliminated by Rwandan-supported targeted operations.
Simplistic discourses cloud a deeper understanding of the three decades of cyclical conflict in eastern DRC.
International media outlets have fallen into traps too. When Kinshasa raised the death toll of the Kishishe massacre from 50 to 272, newswires were quick to reproduce the inflated numbers.
The added pressure of simplifying stories to ensure large readerships has also led media outlets to publish sensationalist headlines featuring deeply loaded terms such as “cannibalism” or “terrorism”.
While locally, people recognise hyperbole and the political use of historical references, when such phrases are exported to an international audience without the knowledge to contextualise them, they become misread.
Simplistic discourses cloud a deeper understanding of the three decades of cyclical conflict in eastern DRC and can once again serve to amplify one side or another in the information war.
Understanding DRC’s complex crisis requires going beyond the here and now, and looking at how the country’s long conflict history continues to shape present-day violence in the region.
Most armed groups today are fuelled by a variety of factors, including elite competition, resentment over past violence, long-standing conflicts around land and local authority, and historically grown distrust of the state.
Understanding the situation also requires focusing on other tragic areas of mass violence beyond the M23. This should include the fighting in the highlands of South Kivu province, and its geopolitical ramifications.
It should also include groups like the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) – a Muslim insurgency with Ugandan origins; and the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO) – a disparate coalition of Ituri-based militia.
While the M23 rebellion is treated by some as the main source of violence in the east, the ADF and CODECO are responsible for the lion’s share of the most gruesome massacres that have recently taken place.
In the end, reporting on and analysing DRC’s conflict will always present some serious challenges. But this doesn't negate the need for greater awareness of the information war and trying to unpick the other complex dynamics at play. The millions of people affected deserve nothing less.
A version of this article has been published in French on Afrique XXI.