The internet’s reach now extends across social, political, and economic life in Ethiopian society.
Social media has been a democratising influence giving anyone with a web connection the opportunity to air their views. But it has also heralded a surge in hate speech, disinformation, fake news, and polarizing views.
Promoting Religious and Ethnic Tolerance in Ethiopia (PRETE) is a program that provides training for volunteer students interested in combating online hate speech and disinformation.
Designed to promote peace and stability it is funded by the Bureau for Democracy Human Rights and Labor (DRL) at the US Department of State. The program, which is being implemented by Dexis Consulting Group, intends to work with a number of different organizations and educational institutions. Religious and community representatives are also part of the workshops.
The ultimate goal of PRETE is to successfully identify and counter dangerous speech in several targeted areas by developing and disseminating counter-messaging and reducing inflammatory dangerous speech.
The first objective is to deliver a first-of-its-kind monitoring system that identifies and tracks dangerous speech on social media in the Oromia and Somali states, where ethnic violence has been the most prevalent over a sustained period of time.
It will also provide regular monthly monitoring reports to the Department of State (DOS) and partners, using the ARTIS Looking Glass LLC (ALG) information and technology platform on the incident rates of dangerous speech.
The second objective is to train and build capacity among a diverse team of selected Jimma and Jigjiga University students, as well as ethnic and religious leaders, to develop counter-messaging through quarterly workshops.
Finally, social media influencers can deliver these counter-messages to established social media networks, while ethnic and religious leaders will do so too in their own communities.
Kalkidan Asaye, one of the members of the Jimma University working group, told Addis Zeybe that dangerous speech is propagated on social media using mobile devices. This happens especially on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and has led to increased cases of ethnic tension and violence affecting vulnerable groups.
According to Mr. Dereje Seyoum, the coordinator of the program, the training will equip the students with up-to-date social media skills to counteract hate speech.
During their induction, the students will conduct social media assessments and hands-on training in identifying and combating hate speech and disinformation. The initiative will also work in close collaboration with partners to ensure the sustainability of this effort after the phasing out of the project.
For PRETE to succeed, the roles of higher educational institutions, government offices, and NGOs, as well as religious and community leaders are considered to be crucial.