B7: Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability?
Various constraints impede the development of diverse media outlets and perspectives online. With few exceptions, the media environment often leans toward the government. While domestic usage of social media platforms, particularly Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, and Instagram, has been expanding and slowly replacing the nascent Ethiopian blogosphere, these platforms also suffer from misinformation and polarization.
The Tigray conflict spurred widespread misinformation on social media sites. The Ethiopian government and the TPLF both sought to control the information environment (see B5), with journalists being harassed and labelled as misinformed. Connectivity restrictions in Tigray made it much more difficult to access information about what was happening on the ground in the early stages of the conflict (see A3), facilitating the spread of speculation and misinformation. For instance, after a clash between the federal army and TPLF forces, many reports indicated that social media accounts unintentionally spread a doctored picture to report about the fighting.
The spread of unconfirmed information, the phenomenon of purportedly false news, and the growing problem of hate speech in the context of ethnic clashes have had a major negative effect on the credibility of legitimate online information. Misinformation circulated widely within Ethiopia and among members of the Ethiopian diaspora following the killing of Hachalu Hundessa, exacerbated by the internet shutdown imposed after violence spread in the aftermath of his death (see A3). Misinformation also proliferated after the June 2019 assassination of the Amhara region’s president and that month’s internet shutdown (see A3). A surge in online misinformation and disinformation was also noted in response to Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed’s October 2019 claim that the government intended to assassinate him. Rival factions within the former Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) also reportedly spread online misinformation and disinformation as the Prosperity Party was formed to succeed it at the end of 2019.
The media landscape has benefited from Prime Minister Abiy’s reforms. Access to diaspora-based media and opposition outlets such as ESAT and OMN was restored in 2018, and a number of new online media outlets have launched.
B8: Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues?
Despite hostile conditions caused by poor internet access and repressive laws, online activism has gained considerable momentum and influence over the past few years. Notably, social media and communications platforms have been integral to the mobilization of widespread anti-government protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions since November 2015, enabling activists to post information about the demonstrations and disseminate news about police brutality as the government cracked down on protesters. Activists have also used social media platforms to consistently report on the arrests, trials, and releases of political prisoners.
The government has routinely shut down networks and blocked social media in order to hinder mobilization efforts. A total communications blackout imposed after the conflict in Tigray broke out restricted the flow of information (see A3). Localized shutdowns in Oromia were imposed in January 2020 to impede an OLF faction as it reportedly engaged in fighting with government forces (see A3).
During the coverage period, activists used a variety of social media platforms to campaign for their causes. Ethiopians mobilized protesters, including in the United States and Europe, to demand justice for Hachalu Hundessa after his murder in July 2020 (see A3). A campaign demanding the release of imprisoned Oromo political leaders, such as Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, was conducted on social media as well.
In late 2020 and early 2021, social media users mobilized around aid access to Tigray. Calls made under the banner of the #AllowAccesstoTigray hashtag demanded that the government allow humanitarian access to Tigray, where residents faced mass food insecurity and physical attacks. Researchers found that pro-Tigray digital activism was highly coordinated to raise awareness about the conflict, with thousands of users seemingly joining Twitter to participate in the campaigns.