August 1, 2021

Does Social media intensify the conflict in Northern Ethiopia?

PoliticsCurrent AffairsAnalysis

The country’s chronic internal conflict and political instability have made Ethiopia a fertile ground for the spread of misinformation.

Avatar: Rehobot Ayalew
By Rehobot Ayalew

Rehobot is a lead fact-checker at HaqCheck. She is a trainer and a professional who works in fact-checking and media literacy.

By Solomon Yimer

Solomon is a content editor at Addis Zeybe. He has worked in print and web journalism for six years.

Does Social media intensify the conflict in Northern Ethiopia?

The country’s chronic internal conflict and political instability have made Ethiopia a fertile ground for the spread of misinformation. The lives of people living in the conflict areas were highly affected  by the consequences  caused by the misinformation and over flooded propaganda news that is circulated through social media platforms.

There are many war correspondents and leaders in both fighting parties who regularly post incidents from the battlefield on social media and most of them are telling exaggerated wins over their ‘enemy’.

According to The Edelman Trust Barometer, the contemporary problem of fake news has also been closely connected with high levels of mistrust in the mainstream media across the globe. 

Nowadays, many people are depending on social media as a main source of information. The growing number of young Ethiopia who connects and shares news on social media platforms has become a prime target for this tide of disinformation and misinformation.

Propaganda has been around for centuries, and the internet is only the latest means of communication to be abused to spread lies and misinformation. One example, in recent weeks, there was a huge claim over-controlling towns and cities in bordering areas of Amhara and Tigray regions.

Disinformation trend during the conflict in Tigray

In this digital era, the expansion of social media plays a big role in the increasing information disorder. Making the spread and the damage of mis/disinformation is much harder to control. 

In a country like Ethiopia, the low media literacy rate together with the cultural and political differences add fuel to the fire, making it worse. 

Misinformation runs rampant in times of political instability and the country’s recent experience of a lot of riots, ethnic violence and the current war in the northern part of the country pave the way making it difficult to sort the fact from the fiction. 

Most of the time those who disseminate disinformation may use it for their own financial gain, for promoting their own propaganda or for other personal uses. 

Given conflicting reports and unfolding developments, it is hard to make a comprehensive assessment of how misinformation is circulated on social media regarding the ongoing conflict between the federal-led and TPLF-led forces.  

However, it is clearly seen that the political instability in the northern part of Ethiopia, mainly in the Tigray region shifted the disinformation trend in the country’s information sphere. Following the outbreak of the war between TPLF and the National government on November 4 2020, hearsays and unconfirmed information started circulating across the social media platforms. The internet shutdown around the region and the information gap created a comfortable space for the disorder. Some media outlets having a bias and claims from activists and public figures flowing from all directions made the problem worse. 

The disinformation in Ethiopia turned its face to situations related to Tigray and as the war continued the way the false information is being promoted has also continued to change its nature.

(Image: series of fact checking articles by HaqCheck on Tigray conflict)

Manipulation of images and other media attachments became one of the main trends. HaqCheck was able to debunk some of the disinformation mainly on Facebook. Some of them were found to use Inaccurate images, while others used images that are not related to the situation stated in the post. Others also found using images of r another specific time or place, which do not support the  story, were also seen circulating widely. 

(Image: Screenshot of a Facebook post claiming the Afar special forces has captured TPLF forces, however HaqCheck found the picture posted in the early stage of the conflict with a different claim and context.)

Imposter public figures, media outlets, and organizations were also used to mislead the public. 

(Image: Screenshot of a False image, debunked by HaqCheck, posted on Facebook by the name of one of the private Tv stations in the country.) 

Yohannes Eneyew Ayalew, PhD Candidate at Monash University, Australia, believes social media is intensifying conflict and this should not be ignored However, presenting social media’s impact as a sole factor for conflicts in Ethiopia is reductionist and myopic, and he sees the structural and political problems as underlying factors at play in the Ethiopian context.

“Social media can help foment polarization, division, and hatred, at times, armed conflicts offline,” he says. “It seems to me that Ethiopia’s current conflict has roots in structural and political problems haunting us over the years. Structurally, Ethiopia’s tribal federalism is the original sin that has torn us apart.”

Since November 2020, the conflict has escalated to the next levels after Ethiopia National Defense Forces (ENDF), Eritrea troops, and the Amhara regional forces raided the Tigray region, in pursuit of the TPLF, which has been ruling the state for several years. 

In the middle of the conflict, war correspondents and supporters of the government were also misinforming the public through providing military triumphs (breaking) news. For example, some users used fighting videos from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to break the news that the government forces were scoring triumphs in the battle.

Some social media users were sharing war footage over claiming that their forces are winning in the battlefields.

Image: A facebook post claiming TPLF forces capturing the town of Kobo.

According to news sources, however, supporters of both belligerents (TPLF and government) were engaging in otherwise spreading various forms of misinformation. From the outset, some sympathizers and political analysts were using different techniques to hoodwink the public and aggrandize the military might of TPLF. For example, Facebook users have been sharing a picture purporting to show a downed Ethiopian military plane attacked by TPLF forces, according to BBC’s Reality Check.

Recently, the misinformation war has turned into triangular vectors between actors and end-users. Accordingly, manipulative actors such as—political ideologues manufacture deceptive behavior using fake content to feed end-users, according to the expert.

“Such fake contents are channeled through paid lobbyists, political analysts, right groups, and activists—who are largely slanted to TPLF and they claim to be regular commentators on the issues of “Ethiopia and Horn of Africa,” Yohannes said.

There are approximately 21 million internet users in the country. Facebook has over 11 million users, a number that is expected to triple over the next four years. Yet, to date, platforms have not invested enough time and resources to adequately address the challenge of moderating online hate speech.

Content moderation

Given that misinformation has become a modern way of making money by spreading lies in the digital space, social media platforms should regularly review their business models and algorithmic powers in content moderation through a human rights-based approach. However, when platforms act aggressively in curating fake news, particularly in the absence of any oversight and accountability mechanisms, they may end up policing speech, Yohannes argues.

Also, when certain content is reported by a large number of people, instead of removing the problematic content, they should rather ‘label’ it unless the impugned content stirs up hatred, discrimination, or violence. 

This has been the case in Ethiopia. Recently, various notable activists have been muted and silenced. While platforms' proactive content moderation is commendable, they should take maximum care in protecting free speech simultaneously weeding out fake news.

The way forward

Minimizing misinformation requires multidimensional, multi-stakeholder responses that are well-grounded in human rights law and the proactive engagement of states, companies, international organizations, civil society, and the media, as suggested by Irene Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression (2021 report).

Scholars also argue that mobile internet and social media have become vehicles for spreading a mix of fake news, rumor, hatred, disinformation, and misinformation. And because of limited access to a multiplicity of news sources, ordinary people often (mis)take “the popularity or virality of a shared piece of information as an indication of its veracity”. 

For Yohannes, encouraging independent journalism and building robust public information regimes are important antidotes to misinformation and disinformation.

In addition, civil society organizations should redouble their fact-checking and digital literacy efforts. Thus far, fact-checking efforts in Ethiopia are being undertaken by a handful of individuals and CSOs with limited resources and staff. Therefore, supporting fact-checking and digital literacy initiatives is paramount to fight misinformation.