Ethiopia's Online Boom Shadowed By Rise in Hate Speech, New Report Labels Threat As 'High and Dangerous'

Social media (File photo).

Addis Abeba — In the midst of rapid internet usage expansion and a surge in social media adoption, Ethiopia is witnessing a significant rise in its online community.

According to the Digital 2023 Global Overview Report, the country boasted 20.86 million internet users at the beginning of 2023, with 6.4 million actively engaged on social media platforms.

This burgeoning social media landscape, encompassing 5.1% of the total population, reflects a broader trend, with 30.7% of Ethiopia's internet users accessing at least one social media platform.

While this connectivity heralds unprecedented access to information, it also brings forth a concerning wave of hate speech and misinformation, posing grave threats to Ethiopia's political and social cohesion and echoing challenges experienced globally.

A recent report by the Ethiopian Media Authority underscores the critical threat posed by the proliferation of hate speech and false information to both individual safety and societal welfare.

It contends that social media platforms have failed to exert sufficient efforts in mitigating the increasing prevalence of hate speech within Ethiopia.

The report, outlining findings from a survey utilizing data obtained from public complaints submitted through a toll-free hotline and questionnaires over the past six months, highlights individuals such as "activists," social content creators, politicians, and religious leaders as the primary sources of hate speech disseminated across social media platforms.

It emphasizes that the content, predominantly circulated in textual, visual, and video formats, was characterized as "divisive, dehumanizing, cruel, extreme, and misrepresented."

According to the report, hate-filled content frequently centered around political viewpoints, ethnic affiliations, religious beliefs, and gender distinctions. It elaborated that images depicting violent killings were circulated in an inappropriate manner, provoking feelings of anxiety, fear, and concern among the populace.

Befekadu Hailu, co-founder of the Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD), asserts that social media has become an indispensable aspect of individuals' lives, offering diverse advantages.

He emphasized that social media has transitioned into a public platform, effectively assuming the role of a distinct form of media.

While acknowledging these advantages, he also acknowledges the prevalence of hate speech and misinformation, often disseminated by individuals with political motives. "The proliferation of hate speech on social media is a widespread phenomenon," contends Befekadu.

He observes that escalating conflicts on the ground correspond to a surge in online hate speech. Drawing from past experiences, he notes a correlation between heightened conflicts on the ground and an increase in hate speech online.

Moreover, Befekadu asserts that government officials themselves are complicit in disseminating misinformation.

A recent BBC inquiry substantiates that members of the ruling Prosperity Party, particularly those affiliated with the Addis Abeba branch office under the designation "media army," have been engaged in disseminating false information, provocative articles, and images that may be construed as hate speech on Facebook targeting individuals critical of or opposed to the government.

The investigation unveiled the involvement of district leaders from the Addis Abeba city administration in orchestrating misleading Facebook campaigns aimed at artificially enhancing the government's reputation at the directive of the party's district structures.

The BBC monitored communications exchanged within WhatsApp and Telegram groups coordinating these social media endeavors, which included directives issued to district leaders and members of the media army as well as their execution.

During the official release ceremony of the report earlier this week, Eden Amare, the head of the authority's media capacity building desk, highlighted that the dissemination of hate speech and false information poses a peril to both individual safety and societal well-being.

The report identifies Facebook as the primary platform for text-based hate speech, whereas hateful content on Telegram was predominantly disseminated through a combination of images and text.

Information disclosed in Meta's advertising resources reveals that Facebook counted six million users in Ethiopia as of early 2023.

Additionally, TikTok and YouTube have emerged as the main platforms for video-based hate speech, according to the report by the Authority.

Social media platforms have faced accusations of contributing to the exacerbation of violence in Ethiopia.

In 2022, an investigation by Global Witness, an international NGO specializing in human rights abuses worldwide, implicated Facebook in worsening the conflict in the Tigray region by "fanning ethnic violence."

Global Witness alleged that its inquiry "reveals Facebook's significant shortcomings in detecting hate speech in Ethiopia's primary language."

A report published last year by Amnesty International implicated Meta Platforms Inc., the parent company of Facebook, in exacerbating human rights abuses during the armed conflict in northern Ethiopia from November 2020 to November 2022.

According to Amnesty International, Meta failed to implement adequate measures to address dangerous rhetoric on its platforms, despite receiving repeated warnings from Ethiopian civil society groups and human rights experts regarding the risks this posed in escalating tensions and facilitating violence during the civil war.

In December 2022, two Ethiopian researchers and the rights group Katiba Institute initiated legal proceedings in Kenya against Facebook. They alleged that the social media platform's recommendation systems amplified violent posts in Ethiopia, including some that preceded the murder of one researcher's father.

The plaintiffs petitioned Kenya's high court to mandate Meta to undertake immediate measures to de-prioritize violent content, bolster moderation personnel in Nairobi, and establish compensation funds totaling approximately $2 billion for victims of violence incited on Facebook worldwide.

The report released by the Ethiopian Media Authority also denounces social media service providers for their insufficient measures in mitigating the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation.

"Despite having community rules and guidelines, these organizations have failed to take adequate action to address the problem," the report asserts.

Furthermore, the report underscores that even when users reported hateful content, these platforms failed to remove 90% of the flagged posts within the mandated 24-hour timeframe.

It also highlights the lack of accessibility and awareness in reporting hate speech, with most platforms offering reporting options solely in English and other foreign languages, thereby presenting challenges for Ethiopian users in reporting problematic content.

As per the conclusion of the report, the overarching threat presented by hate speech on social media is assessed to be "high and dangerous," with a consistent pattern of escalation observed regarding this issue.

In recent years, Ethiopia has witnessed significant communal violence, which may have been instigated or exacerbated by online rhetoric fueling ethnic tensions and violence.

This includes a series of protests in November 2019 in Addis Abeba and the Oromia region, resulting in communal violence in several areas and claiming the lives of 86 individuals.

Another notable instance illustrating the danger posed by hate speech on social media involved university professor Meareg Amare.

In November 2021, Facebook posts targeted Meareg, divulging his name, photograph, workplace, and residential address alongside false allegations of support for the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Subsequently, Meareg, formerly a professor at Bahir Dar University, was assassinated.

In September 2023, Addis Standard also documented the case of Freweyni Hetsay, who suffered the tragic loss of her father and brother as a result of the proliferation of hate speech and incitement to violence on Facebook.

To mitigate such incidents, the government has intensified its efforts to enact legislation aimed at combating hate speech and misinformation disseminated through various channels, such as social media.

Four years ago, the parliament ratified the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation. However, human rights groups have expressed dissatisfaction with the law.

In a statement released in December 2019, a year preceding the proclamation's approval, Human Rights Watch voiced apprehensions regarding the potential of the law to substantially limit freedom of expression.

Journalist Yayesew Shimelis was among the first individuals prosecuted under this legislation.

Despite being granted bail on two occasions, Yayesew, a journalist and producer of the Tigray TV Ethio-Forum YouTube segment, faced charges filed by federal prosecutors in April 2020.

Similarly, Muhiyadin Mohamed Abdullahi, a journalist operating within Ethiopia's Somali Regional State, faces the prospect of a five-year prison sentence following recent allegations of "spreading false news and hate speech."

On 04 March, 2024, approximately one month following his apprehension, Muhiyadin was formally charged under Ethiopia's legislation concerning hate speech and disinformation. This legal action stemmed from his social media postings regarding traffic disturbances resulting from the visit of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to Jigjiga, the capital city of the Somali Regional State.

The Ethiopian Media Authority underscores the pressing necessity for immediate action, as hate speech is fostering perilous divisions within society, inflaming violence, and jeopardizing social unity.

At the report launch event, Yonathan Tesfaye, deputy director of the Authority, articulated that preventing the dissemination of hate speech and false information is not solely the responsibility of specific institutions but necessitates collaboration among all entities and individuals.

"Everyone should fulfill their obligations in the endeavor to prevent the spread of hate speech and false information," he asserted.

Befekadu also points out a deficiency in media literacy as a contributing factor to the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation. "Many users lack fundamental comprehension of social media platforms, which can exacerbate these issues."

Nonetheless, Befekadu contends that the advantages of social media outweigh its drawbacks. He posits that without social media, information would be limited, and mainstream media outlets would monopolize the narrative, relegating the general populace to passive consumers.

To mitigate the adverse impacts of social media, Befekadu suggests directing efforts towards educating and raising awareness among users. "It is also imperative to prevent political parties and groups from disseminating misinformation."

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