Diaspora Dilemma: Shadows of disinformation among Ethiopian diaspora

The level of misinformation and disinformation arising from the diaspora community appears to be on the rise (Picture: Addis Standard)

By Elias Meseret @EliasMeseret

Addis Abeba – More than seven thousand miles away from home in the US city of Silver Spring in Maryland, Ethiopians and people with Ethiopian origin from all walks of life gather in cafes and restaurants that cater for their needs and cravings. Some sip on draught beer, others munch on ‘tire siga,’ a raw beef that’s a local delicacy in Ethiopia. 

The East African nation that is home to the second largest population in Africa with more than 105 million people has gone through a lot in recent years: from a devastating civil war to continued unrests, ethnic tensions, and conflicts in some parts of the country.

Conversations among members of the Ethiopian diaspora often mirror what’s happening in their country of origin and are at times filled with emotions.

“I can’t stand it when some people here tell me all is OK and things will be better in Ethiopia,” Ahadu Leul, a member of the Ethiopian diaspora community who immigrated to the US nine years ago through a Diversity Visa lottery program, says. “But all is not OK. People in Ethiopia are dying daily, our families are living in constant fear and kidnappings are becoming common. That’s not OK.”

The Ethiopian diaspora community represents one of the largest expat communities in the Western world, notably in the United States. Figures on Ethiopian immigrants in the United States range from 300,000 to 450,000 and they are the second largest African immigrant group after Nigeria.

There is also a considerable number of Ethiopian diaspora communities in countries like Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Italy, and the United Kingdom. In total, the country’s diaspora community number globally is estimated to be from 2.5 million to 3 million. And their number continues to rise.

Political instability, deadly conflicts, economic challenges, education opportunities and the Diversity Visa program have continued to lead to more and more Ethiopians to move abroad and seek better opportunities and safety.

Hope in The Air

After the incumbent Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018, Ethiopia’s diaspora for once appeared to embrace him with open arms. He was warmly welcomed in the streets of Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. He was praised as a ‘Reformist,’ and even a ‘Messiah.’

Hope and unity were in the air as members of the Ethiopian diaspora, including those who fled their country due to political persecution, went out in huge numbers draping the national flag and carrying his picture.

The Prime Minister has indeed implemented quite a number of reforms early in his administration, including economic liberalization that facilitated a slow but steady opening up of major sectors like Telecom. He also accepted an international border demarcation decision with neighboring Eritrea that the previous administration was dragging its feet to implement for years. Peace was secured with Eritrea, a small nation in the Horn of Africa that was once a part of Ethiopia, which landed him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

Dashed Hope

However, long-held grievances and animosities began to manifest shortly after the new Prime Minister came to power. Repeated ethnic-based attacks, accusations of bias and bad governance, clashes between armed groups in some parts of the country and protests over the arrest of some opposition figures began to stoke up further divisions.

In November 2020, civil war broke out in the northern Tigray region that swept through the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions for the next two years. Before a peace deal was signed in November 2022, hundreds of thousands of people were killed in what is now described by some researchers as one of the deadliest wars since the end of the Second World War. The war almost entirely alienated the Tigray population, especially the diaspora, that actively protested the government mostly on social media.

Another conflict continues unabated in Ethiopia’s largest region, Oromia, wherein an active combat is taking place between government forces and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). The population in this vast region often describes the conflict as causing a considerable number of civilian casualties and disturbing day-to-day activities like farming and movement from place to place.

In addition, a fierce and deadly conflict has erupted in the Amhara region since June 2023 between government forces and an armed group called ‘Fano.’ The government has deployed thousands of army units to this region that is home to the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. Other regions have also continued to experience various levels of conflicts and unrest that led to the killing and displacement of civilians in huge numbers.

All these factors have contributed to the polarization of opinions and the creation of divisions among Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora.

The Rise and Rise of Disinformation

The Ethiopian diaspora has often played a significant role in the dissemination of information, both accurate and at times inaccurate. Away from home, most of them are actively engaged in various online platforms to discuss mostly Ethiopian politics and current events.

However, the level of misinformation and disinformation arising from the diaspora community appears to be on the rise. And it has begun to have consequences.

Some popular diaspora-run YouTube channels, Facebook pages/accounts, Telegram channels and Twitter (now called X) accounts are churning out various types of hateful messages and disinformation that mostly have political messages in them.

“When we did research on hate speech and online debates some eight years ago, the overall magnitude around it was insignificant,” Dr. Mulatu Alemayehu, Associate Professor of Journalism at OsloMet University, says adding that was a time when most websites and accounts critical of the government were banned or closed.

“As such, out of the 13,000 posts that I monitored back then, only 0.4 percent consist of dangerous speech and disinformation, and most of it was coming from the diaspora community.”

Dr. Mulatu explained that failing to understand the real situation back home, getting relayed and not direct information and the tendency to be more concerned about issues back home are some of the reasons for the rising diaspora engagement online and the associated spread of disinformation.

“And it appears to be done in two ways: deliberately engaging in such acts for political reasons and to get financial gains, and unintentionally engaging in it by not knowing the reality on the ground.”

The deadly war in Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions, for example, attracted one of the largest online mobilizations in recent times wherein government supporters and those opposed to it rallied on social media campaigns using hashtags and slogans.

A quick glance at the works of Ethiopia Check, a fact-checking desk in Ethiopia, shows activists, mainstream media outlets, online channels, and social media accounts and even politicians and prominent personalities both at home and abroad have been spreading false information with the intent to rally support around their cause and consolidate gains of various types.

In one recent instance in January 2023, a popular US based media outlet called ‘ESAT’ claimed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that went to war with the federal government had removed its five top-ranking members, an inaccurate information that was later debunked by Ethiopia Check.

Similarly, some pro-government activists in the diaspora that supported the war in Tigray were spewing out various types of false information like an alleged assassination of senior TPLF leaders and the capture and recapture of battlefield areas throughout the course of the war.

Meanwhile, some members of the Tigray diaspora community were similarly engaged in the dissemination of false information and smear campaigns targeting the government. In many instances, popular social media accounts among this community were falsely alleging the capture and killing of senior Ethiopian army officials, which later turned out to be false as these officials appeared on state TV conducting their day-to-day activities.

As such, there is an increasing element of the Ethiopian diaspora that are spreading disinformation or engaging in polarizing discourse, often in the context of politics and conflicts. And this is exacerbating the tensions and divisions at home.

Emotionally charged conversations are common among the diaspora community that continues to pit one against another over issues happening back home. At times, exaggerating or sensationalizing events is also becoming a trend that is partly contributing to the distortion of perception of the situation in Ethiopia.

The Battle for Narratives

On 24 and 25 October 2023, Ethiopia’s leader lectured his top officials on the need to create a rock-solid “Grand Narrative” that sets the nation’s agendas at the forefront. Some claim he was attempting to regain his lost credibility; others think it will navigate the nation to calmer waters.

An observer says the battle for narratives that also exists within the diaspora community appears to be in full swing.

Atnafu Brhane, Program Director at the Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD), says some members of the diaspora community, including diaspora-based media outlets, are using social media campaigns to set narratives and agenda and engage in information battles.

“This can go to the extent of mass-tweeting and sharing content to make the content trend on social media, often without checking whether the content is factual or fabricated,” Atnafu stated adding that the main motivation behind these activities is to set a narrative that is favorable to their own political or social views. 

He argued the absence of a platform where these political differences can be addressed has created irresponsible behavior in the use of social media platforms.

“As long as there is no platform that engages all actors, including the diaspora, and allows for the discussion of all political differences, disinformation campaigns will remain a powerful tool for gaining momentum and setting the narrative in the Ethiopian political discourse,” he said.

“Ultimately, the Ethiopian diaspora’s participation in these campaigns has impacted the narratives that are going to be spread… despite limited access to verifiable information about the actual situation on the ground,” concluded Tessa Knight, a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).

The Money Factor

A 2021 report by the European Institute for Peace entitled ‘Fake News, Misinformation and Hate Speech in Ethiopia’ has stressed the critical role of the Ethiopian diaspora in media ownership.

Nowadays, some of the largest and most watched media outlets (other than those controlled by the state) are located among the diaspora community. Popular video-based media outlets like the Oromia Media Network (OMN), Ethio 360, Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio (ESAT) and Tigray Media House (TMH) are mostly run by the Ethiopian diaspora community.

Social media pages and accounts that have lined up in support or opposition to the government are also actively garnering thousands of shares, likes, comments and retweets thereby shaping public perception and setting up narratives. That also opens the door for the flourishing of disinformation.

“The Ethiopian diaspora’s involvement in disinformation campaigns is considerable, if not the major one,” says Elias Gebreselassie, a freelance Ethiopian journalist who closely follows diaspora conversations online and offline.

He stated a combination of lack of press freedom in Ethiopia, relatively robust civil and political rights in Western nations where the diaspora community reside, lack of effective democratic institutions back home and the proliferation of social media accounts have provided the diaspora with an ‘outsized’ role in disinformation campaigns.

“For one thing, there is this polarized and toxic political and social atmosphere in Ethiopia that gets transported to the diaspora. Then, there is the money factor with YouTube clicks as well as online and physical fundraising initiatives and secret or not-so-secret partisan sponsorships that are helping fuel these disinformation drives,” he said.

Elias added that the relative comfort and safety that foreign democratic countries provide to the diaspora-based ‘dissenters and disinformation chiefs’ is also considerable.

Social Media Platforms Role

Ethiopia has experienced some of the worst atrocities committed against civilians in recent memories. This is clearly visible in the northern regions of Tigray, Amhara and Afar. And the role diaspora-based social media accounts and media outlets played and are playing in spreading hate speech and disinformation was huge. 

Facebook, the most popular and widely used social media platform in Ethiopia, has said it is doubling efforts to protect people in Ethiopia and combat hate speech. The parent company, Meta, didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article but said in a statement in November 2021 Ethiopia was one of its ‘highest priorities’ for country-specific interventions.

But accusations against social media platforms, including Facebook, persist.

The rights group Amnesty International said in a statement on October 30, 2023, Facebook has contributed to the violence that raged through the country from November 2020 to November 2022.

“Three years after its staggering failures in Myanmar, Meta has once again – through its content-shaping algorithms and data-hungry business model – contributed to serious human rights abuses,” Amnesty’s International’s Secretary General, Agnès Callamard, said adding civil society organizations and human rights experts repeatedly warned that Meta risked contributing to violence in the country even before the onset of the deadly northern Ethiopia war.

Disinformation Machine

The fact-checking desk, Ethiopia Check, said in a written reply that the involvement of the Ethiopian diaspora in the disinformation campaigns is ‘enormous.’

“Better access to the internet, a low media literacy rate back home coupled with a lack of sufficient moderation efforts by social media companies has made their disinformation campaigns impactful,” the desk said adding it is becoming common to see members of the diaspora sharing false and misleading information using live streams on social media platforms like TikTok and Facebook.

“These live streams could last for hours and are at times filled with hate speech and violence inciting messages,” Ethiopia Check said.

Journalist Elias Gebreselassie says he is pessimistic about an effective counter to the role of diaspora in disinformation dissemination.

“This is because the current Ethiopian government is itself a source of some of the disinformation coming out of Ethiopia. As such, Ethiopia’s polarized society currently doesn’t have or is in the process of not having informal or formal channels of inter-communal dialogue which can act as common points of agreement or understanding.”

Author’s Note: “Research for this article was made possible with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Washington, D.C’s Transatlantic Media Fellowship.”

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