Washington — When Ethiopian federal forces and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) started fighting in November 2020, a second front quickly opened online, where both sides seek to control the narrative.
Social media became a battleground, with the Ethiopian government and its supporters on one side and Tigrayan activists and supporters on the other. Each side tried to present its version of events to English-speaking audiences, according to The Media Manipulation Casebook. Created by the Shorenstein Center's Technology and Social Change project at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Casebook group has been researching Tigray-related information campaigns since the conflict began.
The Tigrayan side focused largely on raising awareness of the conflict, while supporters of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's administration in Addis Ababa sought to disprove its opponent's claims. And while both made misleading or sometimes false claims, the study found that official communications and pro-government users' posts often sought to discredit any content contradicting the federal government's narrative as disinformation.
"It is a complex case that interacts with the geopolitics of the Horn of Africa, historical trauma, activism, hate speech, misinformation, platform manipulation, and propaganda, all in the midst of an ongoing civil conflict," according to research by The Media Manipulation Casebook.
At the start of the conflict, Tigrayan activists took to Twitter, and the nonprofit advocacy group Stand With Tigray soon emerged. At the same time, pro-government groups such as Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check tried to counter what they saw as TPLF disinformation, often seeking to discredit foreign and local coverage.
Operating exclusively on Twitter and Facebook, the group, which later rebranded as Ethiopia Current Issues Fact Check (ECIFC), stood out with official-sounding directives and statements that often condemned international coverage of the war.
Some analysts whom VOA spoke with believe the federal government launched the group. Authorities deny the claim, and government supporters see ECIFC as a necessary response to what they view as biased media coverage.
"Coverage had been hijacked by the operatives affiliated with the TPLF who are residing in different parts of the Western world," Dina Mufti, a spokesperson for Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told VOA. "And these operatives were actually the ones who are running these misinformation and disinformation campaigns. And they are not helping the international community to see the reality on the ground."
Deacon Yoseph Tafari, chair of the Ethiopian American Civic Council, an association that describes itself as an advocate for human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia, agreed.
"Something had to be done," he told VOA, referring to what he sees as biased reporting. "Under these circumstances, the government has no other ways or tools at its disposal."
Hiring the experts
The push to sway opinions online complemented more traditional efforts over the past year, as various parties engaged lobbyists to influence U.S. government policy and public opinion.
Among recent contracts, Ethiopia's Ministry of Peace spent $270,000 for a six-month contract with the international public policy and law firm Holland & Knight, according to a foreign lobbying report.
The Colorado-based Ethiopian American Civic Council hired three public affairs professionals "to help push back against bipartisan criticism of the government's response to violence in Tigray."
And the Tigray Center for Information and Communication hired a Washington-based policy and advisory company, Von Batten-Montague-York, to press "for the removal of all Eritrean military personnel and militia from Tigray" and to ensure access to humanitarian aid delivery in Tigray, news website Politico reported. After the passage of a Senate bill, the firm stopped lobbying on the center's behalf, according to reports.
The focus on influencing opinion extends to foreign media, with the Ethiopian federal government arguing that the TPLF is dominating or distorting international coverage.
But Ethiopian journalists and analysts say what the federal government considers disinformation is legitimate coverage critical of the government or sympathetic to the Tigrayan cause.
The Abiy administration was quick to throw its support behind the ECIFC's calling out of what it sees as biased coverage. When ECIFC launched on social media, the prime minister's spokesperson Billene Seyoum sent an email and a tweet directing media to the group's social media accounts."
Get the latest and fact-based information on the State of Emergency and Rule of Law Operations being undertaken in Tigray Region by the FDRE Federal Government," Billene tweeted.
CIFC has charged that the media are being used to "peddle exaggerated and uncorroborated allegations," giving space to "false allegations being lodged by TPLF operatives" and misrepresenting official statements.
The latter accusation, in a statement posted Aug. 11 on Twitter, cited reporting by U.S.-based outlets including Bloomberg and the The Washington Post.
"Most of the headlines and the content of the stories continue to deny through silence and turn a blind eye to the role a terrorist organization TPLF is playing in wreaking havoc in the stability of the country," the statement read.
Local and foreign journalists who cover Ethiopia told VOA the statements show how deeply the Ethiopian government cares about the international coverage.
"It became a war about the narrative," Addis Standard founder and Editor-in-Chief Tsedale Lemma told VOA. "They still are concerned about the narrative more than the actual effect of the war."
Reports and statements by the United Nations and other international bodies also appear to support reporting that has been criticized by the government and ECIFC.
VOA made multiple interview requests to ECIFC through its social media pages but received no response.
On its Facebook page, ECFIC lists itself as a government website. But the same detail does not appear on Twitter. Scanning the group's public information, VOA could not determine who works for the group or what its official mandate is.
Foreign Affairs spokesperson Dina told VOA that the fact check group is not affiliated with the government, however.
"The group is independent. They're acting by themselves," Dina said. "I know that they're doing a fantastic job."
"They give correct information -- proper information -- from Ethiopia," he continued. "I'm not interested in commenting on that group."
Disguised as a fact check
Some say ECIFC's work illustrates a broader phenomenon in which a "fact check" itself disseminates disinformation.
Aly Verjee, a senior adviser with the United States Institute of Peace, said the group's "co-opting of fact-checking language is very, very deliberate and very important."
"There are people who aren't going to trust anything that comes from a government spokesperson. But if they see 'fact check' associated with it, then maybe that brings an additional appearance of it being credible information," Verjee said. "It potentially devalues the idea that there is objective reporting."
Ethiopian journalist Tsedale said that despite the name, the group's intention has always been clear: pushing the federal government narrative. "From the very beginning, it was not about fact-checking as it was about countering information that the government sees as not to its interests. It barely did any fact-checking."
VOA did not identify any self-titled fact-checking accounts among those supporting the Tigrayan side.
Stand With Tigray is one of the most prominent pro-Tigrayan groups. It has more than 36,000 followers on Twitter and 14,478 followers on Facebook. The group runs Twitter campaigns calling on the international community to stop humanitarian crises, and it draws attention to what it sees as atrocities in the region.
CIFC, in comparison, has more than 84,000 followers on Twitter and 111,000 followers on Facebook.
The pro-government group appears to have a wide audience, said Claire Wilmot, who co-wrote The Media Manipulation Casebook report Dueling Information Campaigns: The War Over the Narrative in Tigray.
Wilmot said everyone is a target -- especially foreign journalists and foreigners in general, as well as Ethiopians in Ethiopia and members of the diaspora.
"The fact check account draws its power from the preexisting narrative that the TPLF is financing a massive disinformation campaign online, which has not been substantiated by any evidence. It uses that disinformation narrative to undermine any and all critical reporting that shows the government in a negative light," Wilmot told VOA.
"The impact that that will have on information health in Ethiopia, on the ability for independent journalists to challenge government narratives -- that's a big question."