Anyone who takes a stand opposing the war in Tigray finds themselves attacked on social media.

I make no complaint about this; everyone is entitled to their opinion. Sometimes the attacks are abusive, which only undermines the abuser.

Having been a journalist for four decades, I am used to attacks.

But it is one thing to be attacked by individuals – quite another to be attacked by a state, attempting to appear to be an ordinary person.

Ethiopian government surveillance

It is important to know what weapons a state can deploy against its critics. For several years the Ethiopian government has paid commercial companies to undertake these activities.

As Voice of America reported:[1]

“Since 2016, the Ethiopian government has targeted dissidents and journalists in nearly two dozen countries with spyware provided by an Israeli software company, according to a new report from Citizen Lab, a research and development group at the University of Toronto. Once their computers are infected, victims of the attack can be monitored covertly whenever they browse the web, the report says. Based on an in-depth analysis of the methods used to trick victims into installing the software, Citizen Lab concluded that “agencies of the Ethiopian government” deployed the spyware to target individuals critical of their policies.”

This analysis was supported by Human Rights Watch.[2] “The Ethiopian government has doubled down on its efforts to spy on its critics, no matter where they are in the world,” said Cynthia Wong, senior internet researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These attacks threaten freedom of expression and the privacy and the digital security of the people targeted.”

A report by Freedom House published this month came to this conclusion:[3]

“The Horn of Africa is broadly an active area, with cases of transnational repression carried out by the governments of Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan. The Ethiopian cases documented by Freedom House took place before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, a transition that initially resulted in some prodemocratic reforms. However, reports in late 2020 indicate that as the internal Tigrayan conflict unfolds, the Ethiopian government has rendered Ethiopian Tigrayans, including some who serve in the country’s military abroad. Earlier, in 2014, there were three renditions of perceived political opponents from Kenya, and one each from Yemen and South Sudan. A 2017 CitizenLab report identified the use of commercial spyware against dissidents outside of Ethiopia, including in the United States and United Kingdom.”

Surveillance has been accompanied by repeated closures of the internet by the government.  But the Ethiopian government went further. It manipulated which sites could be viewed. As a study provided by Amnesty International put it:

“Overall, 16 different Ethiopian news outlets presented signs of censorship, many of which showed evidence of being blocked prior to the state of emergency declaration.”[4]

Social media manipulation

It is against this background of surveillance, censorship and blocking that the reports of social median manipulation should be judged. Of course, Ethiopia is by no means the only government in Africa that uses these techniques. The South African authorities used a British PR company, Bell Pottinger, to attack its opponents, fanning the flames of a race war in the country.[5]

“Ethiopia’s ruling party hired people to influence social media conversations in its favor” – according to a report sighted by the New York Times.[6]  This view is supported by a study by the London School of Economics which gave details of how the Ethiopian government was behaving.[7] It makes chilling reading and is quoted at length.

“Social media has become a battleground for the leaders of African countries and their opposition. The consequences are devastating. Ethiopia’s latest conflict was preceded by an escalation in the circulation of hate speech and disinformation on Facebook, which intensified ethnic divisions and provided a platform for mobilising attacks. In turn, these troubling trends have justified the Ethiopian government’s decision to cut off internet and communications in the region of Tigray where the violence is taking place. Both uses of social media – its weaponisation and its prohibition – have had tragic implications for human rights. The manipulation of social media is becoming a common occurrence not just in African countries, but globally. The divisive nature of social media transcends borders, fostering tensions in democratic and authoritarian countries alike. Facebook still enables white nationalist groups to operate in the United States, but American-owned tech companies’ pernicious impact in other parts of the world calls for stricter international regulations. 

Unsociable Media

Unrest in Ethiopia is largely due to the country’s volatile ethnic politics. Since 1991, the country was divided into federal ethnic regions and governed by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of the four main ethnic parties: the Amhara, Oromo, Tigrayan, and southern groups. Despite the apparent diversity of the leadership, the coalition was dominated by the Tigrayan party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which created resentment among the other ethnic groups. Perceived inequality, along with repressive authoritarian governance, forced displacement, and an ongoing war with neighbouring Eritrea fomented widespread discontent, culminating in a series of protests which brought Abiy Ahmed to the chairmanship of the EPRDF in 2018. For many, Abiy, an Oromo, symbolised an opportunity for meaningful political reform. He set off to a promising start by making peace with Eritrea, releasing political prisoners and reintroducing opposition parties, and was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019

Abiy sought to execute extensive political reform which would ‘subdue the role of ethnicity in politics’ and extend representation to other minority ethnic groups. He thus dissolved the EPRDF coalition into a single party, the Prosperity Party, and articulated plans to abolish the federal system. These changes generated a serious backlash and revealed the true depth of ethnic tension in the country. Those who stood to gain from Ethiopia’s ethnic politics fiercely opposed Abiy’s reforms, and many Oromo ethno-nationalists felt betrayed by his political compromise. 

Social media has only intensified polarisation. On June 29, 2020, the prominent Ethiopian and Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa was murdered in Addis Ababa after an incendiary Facebook campaign demonised him for ‘abandoning his Oromo roots’ by siding with Abiy. Hundessa’s death was the catalyst for an outburst of ethnically motivated violence culminating in over 160 further casualties, primarily of the Christian Amhara, Christian Omoro and Gurage minority groups. Facebook was the primary platform for sharing hate speech, inciting violence and posting photographs of damaged property. 

An Ethiopian voluntary organisation, The Network Against Hate Speech, has been reporting hate speech and incitement of violence on Facebook and YouTube almost daily over the last few months. The BBC is also reporting examples of misinformation used to stir up tensions in the current conflict, such as manipulated images of a S-400 Russian missile defence system and a downed Ethiopian fighter jet which were made to look like they were related to the conflict. 

The use of technology to incite violence bears chilling similarities to the central role of the radio in the Rwandan genocide. Unlike the radio, social media is far more complex and susceptible to manipulation from an innumerable range of actors. Computer programs choose to deliver engaging, selective content for each individual user, including information that is harmful, such as misinformation, sensationalism, and “hate-clicks”. Due to social media’s lethal potential, it is imperative that Facebook and other social media platforms take responsibility for the circulation of inflammatory content. As of yet, Facebook’s Community Standards aren’t available in Ethiopia’s two main languages and there are no full time Facebook employees in the country. The $750 billion company instead relies on voluntary grassroots activists to report malicious content and events on the ground. However, there is only so much local activists can do. Facebook needs to establish effective regulations on its platform in order to prevent the weaponisation of social media between ethnic groups.” 

The Ethiopian authorities have hit back, accusing the Tigrayans of undertaking similar campaigns.[8]

“Information Network Security Agency (INSA) stated that the TPLF Clique was disseminating up to 20,000 pieces of disinformation via twitter on daily basis and working to disrupt news transmission of several national media in the country. Establishing an online media group named “Digital Woyane” and creating thousands of fake accounts, the TPLF Clique was undertaking psychological warfare against the nation using false flag tactics and fraudulent social media accounts that falsely claim to represent individuals from ethnic Oromo and Amhara.”

While this may be accurate, it is difficult to equate a resistance movement like the TPLF, fighting attacks from Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali forces, with the resources of a government.

Perhaps the lesson we all need to take away is that we should view all social media with some scepticism and caution. Not all information is what it seems to be.