Ethiopia's warring sides locked in disinformation battle
Johannesburg (AFP) – Since clashes erupted between Ethiopian forces and northern rebels more than a year ago, another war has flared up online as the rivals spread false claims to control the conflict's narrative.
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Digital activists have been engaged in a fierce battle to discredit their opponents, from pro-government sites claiming to promote independent fact-checking to opponents sharing doctored content of alleged attacks.
Experts warn that these online campaigns have fed into an already explosive situation in a country with a history of ethnic polarisation.
"Inflammatory messages have worsened the situation in Ethiopia by sowing fear and confusion and further igniting tensions," Ethiopian media and human rights law expert Yohannes Eneyew Ayalew told AFP Fact Check.did
The war in the Tigray region, which spilt into two neighbouring states in July, has killed thousands of people and sparked a severe humanitarian crisis. Fighters on all sides stand accused of committing atrocities. Although the rebels announced their retreat back to Tigray on December 20, no official peace talks have been launched yet.
Communications remain cut in the conflict zone and access for journalists is restricted, making it difficult to verify battlefield claims.
"(It's been) difficult to know with confidence what is happening on the ground – a feature of this conflict from the beginning," Joseph Siegle of the African Centre for Strategic Studies told AFP Fact Check.
"The prevalence of false narratives is contributing to increased scepticism toward all claims of abuse. This, in turn, is impeding a more coordinated and uniform international response to the crisis."
AFP Fact Check has verified multiple claims since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray in November 2020 after accusing the region's dissident ruling party of attacks on federal army camps.
They included photos being shared in a false context, fake official statements and manipulated content.
A study by the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) found there were "two broad campaigns seeking to shape international policy around an active military conflict".
"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 the August study.
On the one hand, pro-government supporters have sought to discredit anyone contradicting the official line, a move encouraged by the prime minister himself.
"My fellow Ethiopians, let us not forget that we are also engaged in a sophisticated narrative war waged against the nation with many using disinformation as a pathway for their sinister moves. Each Ethiopian must play a role in pushing back and reversing the distorted narrative," Abiy said in a Tweet posted in November.
One example is a Facebook page called Ethiopia Current Issues Fact Check, a self-declared "government website". Despite the name and blue tick, the account does not promote independent fact-checking but rather publishes pro-Abiy posts seeking to discredit coverage critical of the intervention in Tigray.
The leader's sympathisers also attacked an Amnesty International report released in February of Eritrean soldiers killing civilians in the Ethiopian city of Axum in November 2020. After initially denying the report, Ethiopian authorities eventually confirmed Eritrean troops had entered the country and carried out the massacre.
AFP Fact Check debunked a widely shared false story by the state-run Ethiopian Herald newspaper alleging that the US had conducted its own investigation into the incident and found no evidence of the atrocities.
Pro-rebel campaigners have also been engaged in spreading disinformation.
AFP Fact Check found that one online user altered an image of Ethiopian troops to make it look like rebels advancing on the capital Addis Ababa. Another alleged that an old photo taken during Ethiopia's 1980s droughts showed a starving woman in present-day Tigray.
AFP Fact Check also debunked a post first published on Twitter falsely claiming that the African Union had asked its staff to leave Ethiopia. The investigation revealed that the account appears to support the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
Role of diaspora
Experts note that Ethiopia's diaspora has played a key role in promoting disinformation for both sides.
Social media accounts of groups like the pro-insurgent Omna Tigray and Stand With Tigray or the pro-government Global Ethiopia Advocacy Network and Geda Media Network all list their contacts and locations outside of Ethiopia.
Grassroots online activists have "impacted which narratives spread on Twitter about the crisis in Tigray, despite limited access to verifiable information about the actual situation on the ground", according to the US-run Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Western media have also become a target in the battle for information domination.
Abiy supporters are accusing foreign news outlets of publishing false narratives about the war in northern Ethiopia.
Alphonse Shiundu of fact-checking organisation Africa Check said this was partly due to some international media failing to "capture the correct context while reporting about the conflict thus ending up with misleading stories that anger locals".
"Ethiopians are reacting to what they see as unfair coverage in the international media where criticisms of Ethiopian government abuses are widely reported, but alleged human rights violations committed by the Tigrayan rebels do not generate the same level of attention," he said.
© 2021 AFP