Ethnic violence set off by the assassination of a popular singer has been supercharged by hate speech and incitements shared widely on the platform
Throughout his life, Ethiopian singer Hachalu Hundessa sang about love, unity, and raising the marginalised voices of his Oromo ethnic group.
He had always tried to keep his work and politics separate, saying, “Art should not be subject to political pressure.” But it became increasingly difficult for him to keep these two worlds apart, thanks to a politically-motivated disinformation campaign orchestrated on Facebook through a network of newly created pages and designed to demonize Hundessa.
The incendiary campaign claimed Hundessa abandoned his Oromo roots in siding with Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy. Abiy, Ethiopia’s first Oromo leader, has been heavily criticised by hard-line Oromo nationalists who believe he has abandoned his heritage by appeasing other ethnic groups.
The impact was devastating.
Hundessa was assassinated on June 29 while driving through the capital Addis Ababa. The man police charged with Hundessa’s killing told prosecutors that he was working as an assassin for the Oromo Liberation Front, an armed nationalist group linked to numerous violent attacks — and who told the shooter that Oromia would benefit from the death of one of its most famous singers.
Hundessa’s death at age 34 set off a wave of violence in the capital and his home region of Oromia. Hundreds of people were killed, with minorities like Christian Amharas, Christian Oromos, and Gurage people suffering the biggest losses.
This bloodshed was supercharged by the almost-instant and widespread sharing of hate speech and incitement to violence on Facebook, which whipped up people’s anger. Mobs destroyed and burned property. They lynched, beheaded, and dismembered their victims.
The calls for violence against a variety of ethnic and religious groups happened despite the government shutting down the internet within hours of Hundessa’s murder. Soon, the same people who’d been calling for genocide and attacks against specific religious or ethnic groups were openly posting photographs of burned-out cars, buildings, schools and houses, the Network Against Hate Speech, a volunteer group tracking hate speech in Ethiopia, told VICE News.
These attacks reflect the volatile nature of ethnic politics in Ethiopia. Abiy’s rise to power in 2018 led to a brief period of hope that Ethiopia could be unified under the first Oromo to lead the country. But that quickly evaporated, and the country has since been wracked by violence, coinciding with a rapid increase in access to the internet, where Facebook dominates. And rather than helping to unify the country, Facebook has simply amplified existing tensions on a massive scale.
“When the violence erupts offline, online content that calls for ethnic attacks, discrimination, and destruction of property goes viral,” Berhan Taye, Africa policy lead at digital rights group Access Now, told VICE News. “Facebook’s inaction helps propagate hate and polarisation in a country and has a devastating impact on the narrative and extent of the violence.”
And it’s not as if Facebook hasn’t been warned. In October 2019, a viral Facebook post led to the deaths of over 80 people, and in May, the U.N. published a report highlighting the dangers of hate speech on its platform.
The company opened its first content moderation center on the African continent last year, promising to employ 100 people through third-party services company Samasource to cover all African markets. It’s unclear if Facebook has filled those roles, or how many — if any — it has designated to deal with the situation in Ethiopia.
Additionally, Facebook’s Community Standards are not available in Ethiopia’s two main languages (the company says it is working on it) and the company has no full-time employees in the country. Activists say Facebook is instead relying on them and a network of grassroots volunteers to flag content and keep the $275 billion company up to speed about what’s happening on the ground.
Yet the steps Facebook has taken are simply not enough, experts say, and activists have had it.
“They ask you to jump on a call so that you can give them more context, but fuck no! I said I’m never going to do that ever again,” one Ethiopian activist who’s been repeatedly asked to speak to Facebook employees told VICE News. The activist was granted anonymity as they were not free to speak openly about their interactions with Facebook.
Are you a content moderator working for Facebook in Africa who wants to speak up? You can contact David Gilbert securely on Signal at +353874178801 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Human rights groups who wrote to Facebook last month flagging their concerns say their warnings are falling on deaf ears, and that Facebook is in danger of repeating the mistakes it made in Myanmar four years ago.
In Myanmar, Facebook allowed hate speech to spread unchecked against the Rohingya Muslim minority, despite the warnings of activists on the ground. The result was a U.N. report that said Facebook’s failure to act sooner “turned [it] into a beast” that helped facilitate genocide against the Rohingya.
“There’s a lot of similarity,” David Kaye, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, who visited Ethiopia in December, told VICE News. “You have this enormous multiplicity of languages, and what that means is that Facebook has a hard time getting access to what’s actually happening on the ground.”
In Ethiopia, the hate speech and incitements to violence come from all sides, including the government and influential media figures — and they are often posted in one of hundreds of languages used throughout the country.
In the wake of the Hundessa murder, the attacks were primarily focused on the Amhara people.
Social media users were quick to assert, inaccurately and without evidence, that the murder was committed by a “neftegna” — an increasingly problematic term that has become a dogwhistle call to demonize and attack Amhara people in parts of Oromia.
The Network Against Hate Speech recorded posts on Facebook that clearly called for “genocidal attacks against an ethnic group or a religion — or both at the same time; and ordering people to burn civilians’ properties, kill them brutally, and displace them. There are also texts and videos that give instructions about how to make a homemade explosive to carry out the attacks at a greater scale. There was even a video by someone living in the U.S. that ordered young people to brutally murder some ethnic group and burn their properties, and inciting terror with a suicide bombing.”
Facebook would not reveal how much of the hate-speech content linked to the murder it has removed, but experts insist the sharp rise in toxic content online in recent years is clearly linked to real-world violence.
“There is no doubt about the circumstantial evidence of the rise of hate speech and incitement on Facebook in the past two years and how these expressions are accompanied by record numbers of displacements, attacks, and killings on ethnic and religious minorities in regional states,” Teddy Workneh, an assistant professor at the school of communication studies at Kent State University, told VICE News.
Five years ago, Hundessa’s music became the soundtrack of a protest movement that culminated in Abiy becoming prime minister in 2018.
Abiy’s appointment promised a fundamental change in a country that has historically been tormented by deep ethnic and religious divisions. He implemented wide-ranging reforms and opened up the country’s media landscape for the first time.
He freed thousands of political prisoners, welcomed back exiled opposition members, appointed the country’s first woman president, and created a gender-balanced Cabinet. In 2019, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering peace with Ethiopia’s longtime enemy Eritrea.
But the honeymoon didn’t last long, and in recent months Abiy’s government has acted like so many others in Ethiopia’s recent history.
It has postponed elections that were due in August, while lawmakers have extended their mandate almost indefinitely. The police have begun arresting opposition figures, and Eritrea says the peace deal is falling apart, accusing Ethiopian troops of still occupying its territory.
Social media played a key role in helping bring about change, helping give those without a voice a platform to express opinions that had for so long been silenced.
But, following Abiy’s rise to power, the social media landscape became a highly toxic and divisive space, with 80 ethnic groups fighting for attention.
“There is strong evidence of the role social media played in drawing a sizable number of Ethiopians into political discourse, but there is no guarantee that such an increase in participation is contributing to the cultivation of democratic values,” Workneh said.
And as social media has become a toxic stew of ethnic and religious hatred, the government has attempted to address the issue. But rather than compelling Facebook to improve its efforts, Abiy’s government has turned to the tools of an authoritarian.
According to data from NetBlocks, a nonprofit that monitors internet shutdowns globally, the government pulled the plug on the internet at 9 a.m. local time on Tuesday, June 30 — just hours after Hundessa was killed. The outage lasted three weeks.
However, just like all internet shutdowns, the measures did not have the impact the government hoped for.
That’s because a significant proportion of the people posting incendiary content to Facebook don’t live in the country.
“There are hours of video that came from the diaspora community, extremist content, saying we need to exterminate this ethnic group,” Endalk Chala, an assistant professor of communication studies at Hamline University in Minnesota, told VICE News. “This is a very serious data point that tells us that Facebook is not yet doing enough to protect ethnic minorities.”
The blackouts also means that volunteer groups who flag hate speech content for Facebook have no way of reporting the issue, meaning it spreads unchecked for hours or days before it’s taken down.
The government also introduced new legislation that nominally aims to tackle hate speech and disinformation, but by bundling the two issues into a single bill, the government has in effect helped stifle free speech.
“This legislation that tries to tackle both hate speech and disinformation, that’s super dangerous,” Kaye said. “But the government is really defending it because they really do see the possibility of ethnic violence threatening the entire reform effort of the government.”
So what is Facebook doing?
Facebook says it is “aware of the complexities both within and outside the country.” It says it is “deeply concerned” about the issues flagged by human rights groups and points out that Facebook representatives have visited the country on a fact-finding mission and it has increased its monitoring of harmful content.
But Facebook wouldn’t say who is in overall control of the issues impacting Ethiopia, how many people it has working in-house on any issue arising in the country, or how many third-party moderators it employs to review content reported by users.
As well as the moderators it has hired in Kenya, Facebook also has content moderators in Ireland, and the company it uses is currently hiring moderators who speak Amharic — though there’s no indication of how many people it is looking for.
Activists also want the findings from Facebook’s trip to Ethiopia to be made public so the company can say publicly what it is committing to and therefore be held accountable. But Taye says the conversations she’s having with Facebook representatives now are the same ones she was having a year ago, suggesting the company simply doesn’t understand its impact in the country.
“Ethiopia has been in a state of perpetual ethnic violence for the past few years, and it’s hard not to see Facebook and other social media platforms as culprits. Facebook may not be the perpetrator of violence in Ethiopia, but it is a breeding ground for hate.”
Cover: A group of men in Ethiopia hold machetes in a Facebook post by “Ethiopian DJ,” an account with over 1 million followers known for spreading fake news, incendiary memes, and conspiracy theories.