August 19, 2023

Ethiopia's Tragic Unraveling: How Social Media Claimed Etsay Asefa's Life

City: Addis AbabaFeature

His Family Caught in the Crossfire of Online Chaos and Real-World Carnage

Avatar: Ilyas Kifle
By Ilyas Kifle

Ilyas is a reporter at Addis Zeybe experienced in creative writing and content production.

Ethiopia's Tragic Unraveling: How Social Media Claimed Etsay  Asefa's Life

In the heartland of Ethiopia, tragedy has struck with the rise of social media's menacing power amidst the nation's internal conflicts. Etsay Asefa's life journey, once deeply rooted in resilience, community, and hope, took an unforeseen turn, illuminating the shadowy path that online platforms can inadvertently carve during the unrest.  

Born in the Enderta region of Tigray, Etsay's life trajectory was altered by the merciless droughts of the 1980s. Relocating to the Wollega zone in Oromia, he sowed new roots and found love in Wudie Admase, with whom he raised five children. Over four decades, Etsay played a significant role in the community, bolstering its infrastructure, fostering education, and mediating conflicts. Yet, tragedy befell him and his kin at the hands of militants.

Fereweyni Etsay, the sole daughter among Etsay's offspring, sat down with Addis Zeybe to recount the heart-wrenching tale of her father and older brother's brutal demise. Why were they killed? The answer lies within a complex interplay of social activism and misinformation.

Etsay's family believed his engagement in social issues and community development, particularly in education, garnered respect and admiration from his neighbors. Known for his volunteer endeavors, Etsay was a pillar of his community, residing in the relatively secure confines of Anger Gute woreda in the eastern part of Wollega, under the watchful eye of the Oromo Liberation Army(OLA).

As Northern Ethiopia plunged into conflict in November 2021, Etsay was imprisoned for two agonizing weeks. His family urged him to flee, to seek safety elsewhere, but he clung to the belief that adversity wouldn't touch his haven. It was a fatal miscalculation.

A damning Facebook post, shared by a page with more than 90k followers and shared widely,  from December 2020 changed the course of Etsay's life. Accusations of association with the OLA Shene terrorist group ignited a perilous cascade. Residents named in the post fled in fear, leaving behind a community tainted by distrust and paranoia. Etsay, his son Dawit, and another resident named Hagos became victims in their home.

Trusting in the strength of his neighborhood's cohesion, Etsay dismissed the social media storm, forging ahead with faith that his decades-long bond with his community would shield him from harm. Tragically, this trust was betrayed.

Two years after the post, Etsay's home was invaded. The violence ensued was a twisted embodiment of the hate speech and misinformation that festered online. As Etsay fell to gunfire, his wife witnessed the cold-blooded act. The bitterness lies in his false sense of security, a conviction that ultimately cost him his life.

In the aftermath, the hate sown online grew more virulent. False rumors tarnished Etsay's memory, tarnishing his legacy and violating the trust he had built over a lifetime. The tragedy was inextricably tied to the digital realm, fueled by the destructive power of social media.

On a fateful December morning in 2022, Etsay's daughter's frantic calls were answered by her father, reassuring her of their safety. Hours later, armed intruders shattered that illusion, leaving destruction and sorrow in their wake. Etsay and his younger son were brutally murdered, their lives claimed by the community they had embraced.

As the dust settled, Etsay's home was pillaged, his possessions stolen by the same individuals who carried out his execution. The anguish of his wife, saved by the intervention of neighbors, is a testament to the fracture that misinformation and hate can inflict upon society. It was a full day before Etsay's remains were discovered and subsequently laid to rest, marking a somber conclusion to this heart-wrenching episode.

Etsay's family points to the damning Facebook post as the catalyst for this tragedy. The same names mentioned in that post guided the assailants to their targets. Another life of Hagos was extinguished on the same day. The chilling connection between online vitriol and real-world violence is undeniable.

The aftermath was a swirl of grief and confusion. Etsay's son, separated by distance, was spared from the horrors that befell his father and brother. The wounds cut deep, leaving the family grappling for answers and justice.

In the wake of this profound loss, the family seeks justice through an investigation by the human rights commission. The impact of social media's destructive power is undeniable, evident not only in Etsay's tragedy but in a series of unfortunate events that have gripped the nation.

Meta, the prominent online platforms company, carries the weight of its responsibility in moderating content within Ethiopia's intricate media landscape. Despite concerted efforts to mitigate the proliferation of misinformation, hate speech, and calls for violence, the challenges persist. In collaboration with Meta, HaqCheck, a local fact-checking initiative, steadfastly confronts the unrelenting surge of misinformation that poses a significant threat to the nation's social fabric. Kirbuel Tesfaye, HaqCheck's lead fact-checker, articulates Meta's measures to address problematic content on its platforms.

The tale of Etsay Asefa's tragedy is a stark reminder that the intersection of social media and conflict can yield devastating consequences. Misinformation transforms into violence, an unintended result of virtual discourse. For nations like Ethiopia, wracked by internal strife and simmering tensions, the role of platforms like Facebook becomes increasingly profound.

In the delicate balance between a platform's potential for connectivity and the peril of misinformation, Etsay's story stands as a sad testament to the need for vigilance and responsibility. As the nation grapples with conflicts, it also wrestles with the digital specter that shapes narratives and lives.

Please watch our interview with Fereweyni Etsay, the victim's daughter. [Amharic]