A deep division in the ruling coalition of Ethiopia – the Revolutionary Democratic Front of the Ethiopian People (EPRDF) – became evident in recent weeks when a dispute broke out on Facebook between two members of the main political parties who disagreed with the historical reports of Ethiopia as a modern state.
The controversy revealed how members of the party within the EPRDF use social media – through messages and memes – to manipulate public opinion and disseminate wrong information and incendiary content.
The EPRDF is a coalition of four ethnic-based parties. They integrate these four parties: the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), the Democratic Movement of the People of Southern Ethiopia (SEPDM) and the Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF), are currently the leaders from Ethiopia.
Until 2018, the TPLF was the dominant party in the coalition, with absolute power for more than 25 years. ADP and ODP joined forces to end the supremacy of the TPLF, but its members continue their rivalry, with internal struggles that normally go unnoticed. Tensions have steadily increased since April 2018, when Abiy Ahmed of the ODP took over as prime minister.
On October 4, the internal ODP-ADP fight broke out when members and supporters of ADP and ODP began discussing a comment by the Vice President of the Regional State of Oromia, Shimeles Abdisa, in Addis Ababa, on the eve of Irreecha (annual celebration which indicates the beginning of spring).
In his words, Abdisa praised the celebration of Irreecha in Addis Ababa, which he described as the place where the Otoms were defeated and humiliated by the old regime:
The Oromo people were defeated right here, our humiliation started right here.
The Otoms were defeated here, our humiliation began there.
In his speech, Abdisa used a triumphant tone and pointed to the celebration of the day in Addis Ababa as a turning point in the struggle of the Omo people. He used the word amharic neftegna (“Riflemen” in English) to refer to the ruling class established after the conquest of Emperor Menelik II in southern Ethiopia at the end of the 19th century.
Today, many of the Amahras ethnicity see Emperor Menelik II as a symbol of triumph and defiance of European colonialism, while many oromos consider it the root cause of their social and cultural subjugation.
The use of the term “neftegna” by Abdisa provoked a violent reaction, as it is used to refer to the members of Emperor Menelik II's army after the TPLF came to power in 1991.
The next day, in a Facebook post, Asemahegn Aseres, one of the main members of ADP, accused Abdisa of using codified language to intimidate the Amhara people and, in turn, provoked the wrath of Taye Dendea, one of the main members of ODP, who saw the accusation of Asemahegn as a denial of the historical, social and cultural subjugation suffered by the Oromo.
The conflicting statements of Aseres and Dendea show the differences in interpretation of the historical events of Ethiopia among the country's elites. While ADP considers that the formation of a modern Ethiopian state is impeccable and virtuous, ODP considers its formation as a process that led to the subjugation and humiliation of Oromos at the hands of Ethiopian emperors.
Aseres and Dendea have several things in common: they are young politicians who aspire to have long political careers and whose parties, ADP and ODP, have come together to end TPLF's supremacy in April 2018.
This dispute on Facebook supported its popularity and generated an intense wave of political polarization transmitted with wrong information.
Their discussion generated an avalanche of support on their respective Facebook pages, which collected reactions, comments and opinions.
Taye's page, with 56 432 followers, was shared almost 5000 times and had 3500 comments, while the Asemahegn page, with 45 565 followers, was shared almost 3000 times and had 2500 comments – just 24 hours after its publication.
These figures are not enough to measure the scope of this political division among Ethiopian citizens. However, it shows how two different nationalist speeches in social media struggle for primacy in the debate about the events of the past and the political future of Ethiopia.
The heated exchange not only tests the tactical alliance of ADP and ODP, it also exerts a “contagion effect” because it encourages supporters with wrong information, incendiary stories, memes and videos on social media.
Manipulation of public opinion: The case of EthiopianDJ
For years, members of the EPRDF have used social media to manipulate public opinion on social media for their benefit. In 2017, when a series of secret EPRDF documents leaked online, an army of Facebook personalities and paid bloggers was deployed to generate derogatory comments and wrong information about those who criticize the Ethiopian Government.
However, as the internal struggle for power and the ideological battle intensified among the members of the EPRDF, the wrong information tactics are moving from attacking critics of the Ethiopian Government to attacking each other and creating allies between the groups of opposition.
For example, on September 3, 2019, Aseres conducted an interview, which went almost unnoticed, to EthiopianDJ, a Facebook page with about 1.1 million followers, known for spreading fake news, provocative months and conspiracy theories, including one that says Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was somehow part of the plot in which the country's highest military officers and leaders of the Amhara region died in June 2019.
In another incident, the EthiopianDJ page published images that allegedly showed security officers confiscating green, yellow and red flags of followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, during an annual celebration of the Meskel, but had no problem with the flag of the Liberation Front of Oromo (OLF) (The green, yellow and red flag is associated with the emperors of Ethiopia, while the OLF flag represents the Oromo resistance).
The images are authentic, but they mislead. They come from two different celebrations, Meskel and Irrechaa, held a week apart – although in the same venue. During these celebrations, security officers confiscated and removed flags that the Ethiopian Government considers illegal.
Flags associated with opposition groups and former Ethiopian groups are often displayed in public events, such as Meskel and Irreechaa, and are considered illegal.
There is no indication that EthiopianDJ has received money from EPRDF, but it provides a new example of the wrong information tactics of the disintegrating party.
EthiopiaDJ's publication with these images was shared about a thousand times and generated 782 comments.
There is no empirical data to show that automated accounts or robots have generated these comments, but there are signs of manipulation of social networks in hundreds of fake Facebook accounts with numerous invented names that regularly publish, mark and like provocative content.
Repeated and deliberate misinformation
The manipulation tactics used by the members of the EPRDF among themselves in their internal struggle for power serve as an action plan for the opposition groups to attack their opponents and the Government.
Since the beginning of October 2019, Ethiopian netizens have witnessed repeated and deliberate misinformation around holidays and political events, which have often resulted in involuntary misinformation.
In a widespread incident, the well-known opposition activist Eskinder Nega, tweeted a two-line poem allegedly written by the famous poet and actress Meron Getenet, which hits the direction of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. But later it was discovered that the poem had been taken from a Facebook page of an imposter who used Meron's name. The poem, an acute and direct position of Abiy Ahmed's leadership (not to mention Abiy's name), characterizes his administration as “without direction.”
A journalist who verified the facts reported that the poem attributed to Meron was wrong, but Nega's original message had already been retweeted more than 76 times and still did not erase his tweet.
In another online incident, Omo activist Jawar Mohammed, with more than 1.7 million followers on Facebook, questioned the integrity of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), after his communication advisor tweeted a question to the mayor by Addis Ababa (member of the ODP) on when the road closures related to the Irreecha festivities will end.
In what has become one of his most visited publications, Jawar published on his Facebook page the screenshot of the tweet with a statement that questions the integrity of NEBE.
Given the intense political polarization around the celebration of Irreecha in Addis Ababa, some consider that the tweet of the NEBE communication advisor is inappropriate. But Jawar's Facebook post is also misleading.
These incidents of misinformation and misinformation feed the pre-election suspicions, as long-awaited general elections are planned in Ethiopia within about ten months.
This article is part of a series of publications that examine interference with digital rights with methods such as network closure and misinformation during key political events in seven African countries: Algeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The project is funded by the African Digital Rights Fund of the Collaboration for International Policy on Information and Communication Technologies in Eastern and Southern Africa (CIPESA).