Sitting at a coffee shop around Gerji, Addis Ababa, Taddese Alemu, 34, wears his earphones, to catch up with the latest breaking news. Since the war broke out in northern Ethiopia, YouTube became his main source of daily updates about the war.
“When my phone has sufficient balance I usually prefer to watch and listen to the news on YouTube,” he says. “If I'm low on balance, I just scroll down only to have a glance at the titles.”
Tadesse passes the phone and shows me the lined-up YouTube thumbnails on which large texts of exaggeration pop out with bold texts.
“Look, have you read this?” he points out to one of the thumbnails that read, “Breaking news, Debretsion is killed today in Khartoum Sudan!”
Taddese, who has worked as a broker for about 10 years, seems to be confident about the reliability of his news sources. “I get the latest news about the conflict in Tigray from these channels,” says Tadesse in an assertive tone.
He starts playing a video from one of his favorite channels in a bid to make me witness what he says. Professional-looking intro, similar to the format used in mainstream news outlets. A 'Breaking News' text written in red over a spinning globe is displayed on the screen.
“Hello, dear families of our channel., We bring you the latest breaking news,” announces the presenter while on the screen are displayed photoshopped images of Debretsion Gebremichael, one of TPLF’s senior politicians. The news continues to read on the topics, though with no statement of sources or factual evidence.
Following the war in northern Ethiopia, the Ethiopian media landscape has gone through a visible remarkable change. While the government-affiliated media had been busy producing one-sided reports endorsing government propaganda, the local independent media became relatively soundless during the ongoing conflict attributed to budget constraints, low war reporting skills.
In such a journalistic milieu, local content creators on YouTube rush to parroting each and every incident in the conflict in an overstatement without further effort to counter-check the facts and responsibly anticipate the consequences of fake news. Overdosed with war propaganda, and with limited access to information, the public resorted to pursuing the least available news source mainly from social media.
According to Alexa, a global web traffic analysis website, Google, YouTube, and Yahoo are the top-visited sites in Ethiopia, YouTube being the second one and Facebook is listed at the 9th rank. And out of the most searched keyword queries in Ethiopia, the word “video” is the second one. According to a YouTube channel analysis site Noxfluencer, out of the top ten Ethiopian YouTube channels with the highest-earning record, news channels take the lion's share.
From the data, we can infer that among social media platforms YouTube has become the main source of information. And during such times when the demand for the latest news becomes critically high video becomes the instant medium that serves the information craving. In this case, YouTube is the ideal platform to quench that thirst.
“When I could find the latest reports based on the truth on these YouTube channels, which any broadcaster didn’t provide me with, I became a typical YouTube audience,” Tadesse tells Addis Zeybe.
These YouTube channels which have become darlings of the people don’t create the news by themselves. Rather they aggregate the news obtained from various sources. They don’t only aggregate though. The news they are compiling is wrapped with the sentimental presentation, and at times, hyperbole. And during such times of conflict in which, not only the media but also the audience take sides, disinformation happens to be ambiguously mixed with propaganda. There is a mind-washed keen audience out there ready to listen to what it only wants to.
According to research by the European Institute of Peace, entitled ‘Fake News Misinformation and Hate Speech in Ethiopia’, “The majority (64%) of fake news items in this sample were 'fabrications,' i.e., claims with no basis. Concerningly, given the proliferation in access to the necessary software and significantly increasing useability, 30% involved some attempt at image manipulation. 42% of the samples were propaganda and bias, indicating a discernible purpose and intention to influence the audience favoring a specific position.”
However, many are bewildered to identify the reliable news source in the platform as many local creators disseminate fake information intentionally or unintentionally. With an intention only to make their viewers happy and grow subscriptions to the channel. Some even clearly report misleading and sometimes fake news.
A local fact-checking initiative, Haqcheck has published an article regarding a video premiered on a YouTube account with a video title, “Soldiers and Teddy Afro in an Amazing Video” and rated it as false. The video claims to show Teddy Afro, the prominent Ethiopian singer, entertaining cadets at Tolay Military Training Center.
However, HaqCheck started its assessment from the thumbnail of the video and confirmed that it is photoshopped, with a creative trick of merging the vocalist’s image in the middle of a crowd of an. Moreover, the video content is found to be made with a slideshow of various pictures of Teddy Afro and the army, not actually a motion picture in which the vocalist is featured, entertaining the cadets.
Tadesse admits from his experience that he sometimes finds fake reports from YouTube. But that didn’t make him go away from the platform. He just sleeps on his intuition to tell from experience which channel to trust or not.
While some YouTube creators are officially known, the majority of the content creators choose to operate in disguise, to supposedly broadcast unaccountable with limitless freedom.
Three years ago, Henock Abebe, 23, who requested a name change, created a YouTube channel named after the famous river originating from his hometown. With no reporter on the ground, nor with confirmed sources, he regularly publishes reports on the platform.
“There are plenty of issues to report if you are aware of your audience's interest that makes everything easy,” he says. “From experience, I know which particular topic could interest my audience at that particular time.”
One of the major reasons that such channels are inclined to disseminate disinformation and biased reports is the reality that the channels can be established and run by a few unprofessional staff with no requirement for further investment or a professional team. However, these channels are far successful in retaining a bulk of audience and attention.
Mixed news and entertainment social media pages were much more likely to share fake news and misinformation than traditional media. One possible reason for this is expected to be the level of investment in editorial staff and journalistic training. Despite having ten times the number of social media followers, [a popular YouTube news channel] has just a quarter of the staff. And [another similar channel] appears to have only two editorial staff,” according to the report by the European Institute of Peace.
Though Henock doesn't call himself a journalist, every time he posts a video on his channel, hundreds of his followers show appreciation for him with their comments and reflections on the latest updates he delivers.
“Journalism and YouTube content creation are separate things, here you will not be guided for the content you upload as it brings many audiences”
“Here every success is measured in terms of number, number of people who view the video, number of subscribers attracted to the channel, and length of the watch hours are crucial for success,” he justifies. “That is why everyone is spending time to grow these parameters and get the reward. A very limited number of the audience tends to visit news websites to read articles.”
While YouTube is one of the platforms which are responsible for the spread of fake news, misinformation, and hate speech globally, the Ethiopian Media Authority, has no directives to regulate individual YouTube creators or moderate their contents.
However recently, the authority began tracing the content of YouTube creators with a large audience and giving oral warning followed by an official letter bidding them register with the media authority and get licensed. Currently, according to the authority, there are only 36 YouTube broadcasters who are registered and licensed in Ethiopia.
“The live broadcast nature of television and radio and the sheer volume of Youtube content makes monitoring both costly and hard to implement,” reads one of the findings in the report by the European Institute of Peace.
Although there are estimated to be only 21.14 million internet users in Ethiopia (January 2020), there is a vibrant online news ecosystem that covers the country. In the country with one of the lowest media literacy rates in the world, millions of audiences are using social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Telegram, as primary news sources.
“Broadcasting in the channel doesn’t demand effort except a better understanding of the audience's behavior,” Henok explains
“A YouTube channel, for example, with 30 thousand subscribers usually narrates a Facebook post of one pro-government activist who frequently writes news updates on his page. Spicing it up with some exaggeration, amateurish hyperbolic narrations, and appealing cover images, the channel uploads the video every day. With no further effort, the channel makes a lot of money in such a way. Why shall they labor then?”
For Ayele Anawute, a Ph.D. candidate at Bahirdar University with a research interest in the area of media conflict and communication, the primary goal of most content creators in the platform is only to make as much money as possible. I think that is the very problem. While practicing real journalism you have responsibilities to serve the public with reliable and truth-based information and at the same time to respect the rule of journalism.
When it comes to the YouTubers most of the news content they produce is presented in a way that can appeal to the viewers only. The topics they cover, the way they deliver the messages, the cover thumbnails images they use, everything is about luring viewers to their video.
Globally citizen journalism became one of the emerging journalism practices which hold both opportunity and threat to the public. It is a type of informal journalism practiced when one person broadcasts an event that happens before his eyes and shares it with millions of others using only a smartphone or portable device. Nevertheless, it becomes a threat if the information in this uncensored content brings any harm to the end-user or is undertaken with the intent of disinforming the audience.
As most of the creators are channeling the news anonymously, with no means of legal or social accountability, they seem to be worried very little about the reliability of the report they broadcast.
“It is unusual to hear an apology from the YouTuber for airing misleading or wrong information,” says Ayele.
As anarchy prevails in a society when the law or moral responsibilities can not check any wrongdoings, a plethora of disinformation is engulfing social media platforms, especially YouTube in Ethiopia. This should be a red light to every concerned body to embark on corrective measures before its lethal repercussions emerge.
It’s not about technology being the existential threat. It’s the technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society and the worst in society being the existential threat. If technology creates… mass chaos, outrage, incivility, lack of trust in each other, loneliness, alienation, more polarization, more election hacking, more populism, more distraction, and inability to focus on the real issues… that’s just society. And now society is incapable of healing itself and just devolving into a kind of chaos,” concluded Tristan Harris, An American technology Ethicist in his popular movie “The Social Dilemma”