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Opinion

Social media and digital rights during Ethiopia’s general election

Published on 22 June 2021

Ethiopia’s general election on 21 June has driven social media to become a contested political space, characterised by hate speech, disinformation, fake government accounts, and internet shutdowns.

BBC World ServiceFollow, 'Voting queue in Addis Ababa'(CC BY-NC 2.0)
BBC World ServiceFollow, ‘Voting queue in Addis Ababa'(CC BY-NC 2.0)

Facebook removed accounts that had been identified as ‘Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour’ to covertly shape voter’s beliefs and behaviour ahead of the election, and according to our recent Twitter poll the majority now expect the Ethiopian government to shut down the internet again in the coming days.

Online spaces – especially Facebook – have become central to democratic deliberation and debate in Ethiopia. After opposition gains in the 2005 election the ruling party conducted a dramatic closing of civic space, clamping down on the media, civil society organisations, and opposition political parties.

Denied safe democratic spaces offline, citizens creating new civic spaces online, using mobile phones and social media to craft a new digital public sphere. These online spaces were used extensively in the 2016-18 movement that resulted in the resignation of the Prime Minister and the demise of the ruling EPRDF government.

Now in 2021, that online space – and democratic electoral deliberation – is under attack by repressive government measures that are denying citizens their human rights to freedom of association, political opinion, and speech. The government of Ethiopia is using a potent mix of digital surveillance, online disinformation, and internet shutdowns to disrupt political opposition and distort the electoral process.

Surveillance

According to the recent African Digital Rights Network (ADRN) Ethiopia Digital Rights Country Report by Iginio Galiardone and Atnafu Brhane, the government of Ethiopia has procured artificial intelligence surveillance technologies from European and Israeli firms and, as the Snowden revelations documented, the USA was for decades training the Ethiopian government to conduct surveillance on its own citizens in breach of their human rights. This was at a time when the government was restricting freedom of assembly, political speech, and incarcerating journalists and bloggers. The Ethiopia Digital Rights Country Report (like this blog) was co-authored by Atnafu Brhane, who spent 540 days in an Ethiopia jail for blogging. He now leads the Addis-based Centre for the Advancement of Rights and Development.

Disinformation

According to Reuters, Facebook last week disabled a government network of fake accounts being coordinated by the government’s Information National Security Agency. The fake accounts were found to be engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” in order to manufacture support for the Prime Minister. The fake accounts were followed by over one million Facebook users. In separate news, Facebook recently announced that in its efforts to prepare for the Ethiopian Elections it had removed 87,000 pieces of hate speech in Ethiopia.

Internet Shutdowns

The government of Ethiopia makes more use of internet shutdowns than almost any other country in Africa and is one of the very few to use targeted geographical shutdowns. Internet shutdowns are often timed to coincide with protests, elections or state security force clampdowns with the effect of obscuring human rights violations. Although the government has recently restored connectivity for institutions including Mekele University, the majority of the Tigray region remains disconnected. Voting will not take place in around 20 percent of the country due to the conflict in Tigray and to ‘logistical’ problems in other regions.

Atnafu Brhane, lead for the Centre for the Advancement of Rights and Development and member of the African Digital Rights Network, says:  “The hate speech and fake news has been increasing and the propaganda war between different political actors has expanded on social media. This has been complicated by foreign actors using the opportunity to attack Ethiopia”. Facebook recently announced it has removed 17 Facebook accounts operated from Egypt by the commercial marketing company ‘Bee Interactive’.

Atnaf recently ran a Twitter poll to gauge public opinion on whether the government might shut down the internet or not. 393 tweeps participated in the poll, out of which 54 percent voted that they did expect there to be an internet shutdown during the election, 24 percent said ‘maybe’ and 21 percent expected no internet shut down.

The African Digital Rights Network (ADRN) is a network of 32 researchers, journalists, activists and lawyers who conduct research on digital surveillance and digital disinformation in ten African countries. The work of the Network is best summarised in this introduction to the ten country reports.

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