Social media misinformation stokes a worsening civil war in Ethiopia

6 mins read

October 15, 2021

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed salutes members of the national defense forces during the inauguration ceremony of the new government in early October. Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

As Tamu Shatallah walked past the inauguration stage draped in gold, his thoughts were on the deadly civil war that has plagued Ethiopia for nearly a year.

It’s a war “between brothers, between sisters,” Tamu said. A war that, as far as he can tell, has done nothing for his country.

That stage in Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa was where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sat last week as he watched a procession of military bands, having just been elected to a second five-year term last week. Behind him, written in large letters was a message: “A new beginning.”

“I hope this new beginning brings peace,” said another local, Hatalesh Gabesa, as she looked at the sign on her way home from church. “Peace is more important than everything else.”

Ethiopia’s civil war is a conflict between the country’s new rulers and its old ones, who were based in the Tigray region in the north.

That’s where the war started, but it has now expanded south and east to neighboring states, displacing millions of Ethiopians. While there is no official death toll, some estimates put the number of dead in the tens of thousands.

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The government has instituted a blockade around the areas controlled by Tigrayan rebels, which has meant cutting off the region to most humanitarian aid, medical supplies and fuel. It’s a growing humanitarian crisis that is steadily gaining more international attention — including from a whistleblower who addressed a U.S. senate committee hearing last Tuesday.

A Tigray People’s Liberation Front fighter poses in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 30, 2021. Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook accused of ‘fanning ethnic violence’ in Ethiopian civil war

Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, told members of a Senate subcommittee that her former employer bears some of the blame for the growing conflict in Ethiopia. More than once, Haugen accused Facebook’s algorithms of “literally fanning ethnic violence” in Ethiopia.

“My fear is that without action, divisive and extremist behaviors we see today are only the beginning,” Haugen said. “What we saw in Myanmar and are now seeing in Ethiopia are only the beginning chapters of a story so terrifying no one wants to read the end of it.”

Freelance journalist Zecharias Zelalem is one of the people attempting to document that story in real time. He reports extensively on Ethiopia and agrees with Haugen’s assessment.

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“Just looking at the instances of documented evidence over the course of the past three years in which prominent Facebook posters would post unverified, often inflammatory posts or rhetoric that would then go on to incite mob violence, ethnic clashes, crackdowns on independent press or outspoken voices,” Zelalem said.

In one recent instance, Zelalem saw an inflammatory Facebook post from a media outlet that falsely blamed members of an ethnic minority group for carrying out murders and kidnappings that took place on Sept. 27.

The post quickly got hundreds of shares and likes. A day later, on Sept. 28, Zelalem said the village cited in the post was ransacked, burnt to the ground and the inhabitants were murdered.

“Despite multiple efforts to report the post, it remains up and live as of this moment,” he said.

Facebook says Ethiopia is a ‘company priority’

In Ethiopia, these are old ethnic tensions that are being stoked in new ways. As more pro-government and anti-Tigrayan rhetoric circulates online, Zelalem worries it is normalizing the violence the country has seen over the past year.

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Facebook denies allegations that its platform has helped sow violence. A spokesperson sent NPR a statement saying that Ethiopia was a “company priority,” and that Facebook had added content reviewers in several local languages. The statement said Facebook had “worked to improve our proactive detection so that we can remove more harmful content at scale.”

Zelalem isn’t buying it.

“I can quite honestly say that Facebook has — if it has done anything, it’s not nearly enough, at least, because there have been more than enough documented incidents,” he said.

In the meantime, the crisis in Ethiopia is worsening. The international community has been pushing the country to allow more aid into the rebel-held regions, but that hasn’t worked.

The U.S. has threatened sanctions. And humanitarian groups say the country is still on a path toward famine.

The Ethiopian government, as it continues its social media messaging campaign, says the international community is exaggerating the crisis.

A version of this story ran on NPR’s daily news magazine



  1. NPR has losr its crediblity by just parroting the Biden admin. pro TPLF propaganda, not credible investigative news reporting.. Kowtowing to hired lobbists and joining the likes of major media -cnn nyt has become fasihionable this days even after post Trrrumpian era.

  2. Amid all these information/misinformation there is no mention about a rare event that took place around Dire Dawa. There was an earthquake yesterday there that tipped the Richter scale at 4.5.

  3. Subject: “Social media misinformation stokes a worsening civil war in Ethiopia, NPR, October 15, 2021

    Humble Commentary, 16 Oct 2021
    Setting aside my shock about Joe Biden that, I thought, I knew, the TPLF is definitely out of bound without thinking about human LIFE. Tigray’s obsession against the previous rulers of Ethiopia [ The Amhara Race] is simply a convenient cover-up for their own ambition to be Masters of the entire Ethiopia for ever.

    The 24-year Government under the silk jenous Dictator Meles Zenawi was not enough as a revenge in the context of TIGRAYAN grudge against the the Amhara Society >>> who developed and constructed their own grave for seemingly immemorial period of time. until the notorious, cruel, savagery of the Derge took over from Emperor Haile Sellasie, the King of Kings, of the Tribe of Judah died in a shabby hut under the savage military soldiers of a noble decent Ethiopian Society. At that point in time, in the face of Human Beings, Ethiopia lost its natural image of decency.

    In a sense, NATURE is passing its judgment about the handling of POWER. We are in a midst of exact situation of the past, where a powerful, self-appointed, leaders are also taking over the new era, as well as its ending in the gutter. Cruel as it may sound those who are at present ready to head to the next grave are lucky to be spared from the savagery of “modern civilization(???)” Wait for the LIGHT to clear YOU to the next GRAVE.

    By the way. the leader of the savage military marauders is still COMFORTABLY alive under the protection of Black African STATE, well secured and tranquil. At one point in time, it was said that he answered a question as to his security with confidence >>> quote: ‘they will not even see my grave’ Unquote. Indeed, Ethiopia did NOT think it is important. Wow! Wow! Wow!

  4. “Freelance journalist Zecharias Zelalem is one of the people attempting to document that story in real time. He reports extensively on Ethiopia and agrees with Haugen’s assessment.”
    1/ Zecharias Zelalem does report on Ethiopia regularly. It does not take long for the reader to find out Zelalem is a consistently Tplf-biased reporter.
    2/ Here we are being told Zelalem “agrees with Haugen’s assessment.” Why with Haugen? Why now? By hanging on the tailcoat of Haugen (free pr) Zelalem is simply positioning himself as a go-to reporter on matters Ethiopian. You may want to read Zelalem’s twitter (May 23, 2021): “My friends @_Will_Brown & @berhe_lucy
    have unearthed a whole new horror of a despicable war. An expert told me the injuries of the victims here are indeed consistent with those caused by white phosphorous munitions. Read the @TelegraphWorld
    ‘s latest on Ethiopia’s civil war.” And who are these “friends?” Tplf’s Lucy Kassa who is best known at fabricating stories. The fabrication in this case? “Ethiopian and Eritrean armies may have used powerful incendiary weapons in civilian areas. Find my latest with @_Will_Brown in @Telegraph” No evidence. Out of thin air! You may want to read more in Addis Standard (a Tplf-run mag).

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