The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ethiopia’s cracking down in Tigray. But activists are spreading the news.

When the government shut down the Internet, new Twitter accounts filled the information void.

Ethiopian migrants who fled intense fighting in their homeland region of Tigray cook a meal in the border reception center of Hamdiyet, in the eastern Sudanese state of Kasala, on Saturday. (Ebrahim Hamid/AFP/Getty Images)

In the early hours of Nov. 4, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed shut down telecommunications and deployed troops to his country’s northern Tigray region. Shortly after, a flurry of new Twitter accounts appeared and began to tweet about the situation. By the following week, new accounts were responsible for nearly a quarter of tweets about the crisis.

On the surface, this is a familiar phenomenon. Some regimes use swarms of automated accounts — known as “bots” — to sway political discourse. However, my analysis of nearly 90,000 recent tweets, along with interviews with Ethiopia’s diaspora, revealed a different phenomenon: There are real people behind most of these new accounts. Their tweets are trying to shape international understandings of the conflict in Tigray, filling an information vacuum created by the Internet shutdown.

How foreign influence efforts are targeting journalists

What is the conflict about?

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has played an outsized role in Ethiopian politics since the end of the civil war in 1991, until a pro-democracy movement led Abiy to assume power in 2018 after the former prime minister’s resignation. He went on to enact sweeping democratic overhauls and reduced the autonomy of Ethiopia’s previously powerful regional governments.

Increasingly marginalized by Addis Ababa, the TPLF rejected a government directive to postpone elections because of the coronavirus pandemic, and then won the unsanctioned parliamentary elections in Tigray in September. The government subsequently cut funding to the region. In early November, Abiy’s government alleged that the TPLF attacked a military base in Tigray, which led to the ongoing military offensive. The TPLF commands enough troops to rival the federal government’s, and a full-blown conflict between them could significantly destabilize the Horn of Africa.

The telecommunications blackout makes it tough to verify information, but Amnesty International has reported widespread killings in Tigray, with thousands of civilians fleeing across the border into Sudan.

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So who’s tweeting about Tigray and why?

Twitter data collected from Nov. 1 to 10 showed that 30 percent of tweets about Tigray and Abiy were from accounts created this year. Nearly half (47 percent) of these tweets were from accounts created in late October and early November. After Nov. 4, the number of new accounts created per day grew from an average of 21 to 245. Their tweets are overwhelmingly (although not exclusively) anti-government.

Despite their single-issue focus and clustered creation dates, most of these accounts do not behave like bots. But they do seem coordinated.

“It is an organized movement,” a Tigrayan community organizer in Canada noted during an interview. “Documents, even an online webinar, taught people how to share materials on Twitter,” he said. Like others in this article, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisal. He described a loose networks of activists using WhatsApp to teach people how to set up accounts and promote hashtags like #StopTheWarOnTigray. Users are told to tweet in English, when possible.

Concerns over disinformation

The BBC reported that some fake images and reports about the conflict are circulating on social media. However, it is unclear whether people sharing these images are intentionally spreading misinformation. The Internet shutdown has made it impossible for many in the diaspora to contact family members and verify reports of violence. Many people I spoke to were simply afraid, and they believed the international community should know what is going on.

However, some content being shared is promoting violence. Hate speech and disinformation have spread rapidly among politicized groups in Ethiopia this year, and the government has blamed social media for violent incidents in Ethiopia and outside the country. In February, the government passed a controversial law criminalizing some social media activity. Rights groups criticized the bill, but they acknowledged that hate speech is increasingly a concern for the country.

But Ethiopia’s international social media audience appears to be very different from its domestic one. Most of the documented hate speech in Ethiopia is on Facebook, in the Amharic language. And more Ethiopians use Facebook than Twitter.

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“Activists see the benefits of Twitter for creating awareness and influencing international organizations,” another activist explained. “Some Ethiopians think it’s the U.S. or other international organizations who are giving the blessing to Dr. Abiy to do what he is doing in Tigray,” he said, emphasizing that there is no evidence to support this belief.

The strategic use of English-language social media is not limited to Tigrayans. Abiy recently posted a Facebook video describing the military incursion as “law enforcement activity” to uphold “justice and the rule of law,” seemingly directed toward the international community.

Another activist told me that in July, a similar phenomenon occurred among other diaspora groups following the killing of Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa. His death also led to an Internet shutdown that lasted several weeks. My data set supports this testimony — there is another spike in the creation of political-focused accounts after June 29, the day Hundessa died.

I reached out to several new accounts to ask what they hoped to achieve. One user confirmed reports that instructions were circulating on WhatsApp groups. “Twitter is preferable to Facebook,” she said. “By using hashtags, the world leaders can see what we are saying directly.”

Others say they joined Twitter to balance the Tigrayan narrative. One user told me that he grew up under TPLF rule and joined Twitter “after noticing TPLF supporters trying to influence international opinion.” He added that he hoped to offset the narrative by sharing another side of what he called a “one-sided and highly dangerous image” of the conflict.

The wider research on information campaigns on social media tends to focus on bots and targeted disinformation campaigns. However, recent research suggests this may be only one part of a bigger story about how social media influences political discourse — one in which the lines between authentic and inauthentic political activity are increasingly blurred.

Abiy’s government may believe that limiting communication will de-escalate the situation. But an information vacuum in conflict can be dangerous — as one activist put it, the blackout has “made a victim of the truth.” Empirically, researchers do not yet know enough about the effects of politicized information campaigns in conflict settings. Without the ability to verify information, all sides appear to be using social media to push their version of the narrative in Ethiopia.

Editor’s note: The article has been updated to clarify Abiy’s route to power.

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Claire Wilmot is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and a research officer at the UK Research and Innovation’s GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub. Follow her on Twitter @claireLwilmot.