Communication and social interactions are critical tools that can either solidify polarization or depolarize democracies at risk. Social relations inherently trickle down into the political discourse of every nation. This means that the status of these social relations is integral to determining how polarized the country will be. Dialogue, consensus, and cooperation in pursuit of a collective national cause are essential characteristics of democracy. Tolerance is a necessary component and vital to the health of democracy— so what happens when different groups cannot see past political differences and begin to define their world based on identity? What happens to a democracy when its social groups with competing interests actively dehumanize opposing groups and start to weaponize their society’s multiplicity? Moreso, how does democratic erosion take place on online platforms like Facebook, a platform with the ability to facilitate drastic assaults on democracy?
The technological advancements of the 21st century have shown us how fast we can communicate and socialize with people across the globe using cutting-edge technology. As a result, the digital market has seen a drastic surge in the internet, social media, and Facebook users in developing countries in the past few years. Over 3.6 billion people worldwide are users of social media. In many countries without access to established media institutions, apps like Facebook and WhatsApp serve as primary information sources. More than 139 million people use Facebook in Africa, where many users have immediate access to Facebook since it comes pre-installed onto their phones, including free access to the internet. Facebook has become so obtainable due to the company installing its Free Basics and Free Operator Solutions program that allows users in internet and data-scarce environments to use online services for free. Ethiopia is one of those countries.
In April of 2018, Abiy Ahmed emerged as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister after more than 20 years of an authoritarian government that ruled with an iron fist. Ahmed symbolized an era to come that championed democracy, freedom of speech, tolerance, and many other sweeping reforms. Since Ethiopia’s inception as a parliamentary republic in 1995, the country had been under the rule of late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the architect of its current ethnic federalist government system. This system fragmented Ethiopia as it assigned nine autonomous regions to a country with more than 90 different ethnic groups. After 1995, political parties mobilized along the lines of ethnicity, perpetually distorting any attempts to cultivate a genuinely democratic political society.
One of Ahmed’s central agendas within his democratic reforms was de-ethnicizing the Ethiopian political landscape. He proposed a new ideology, ‘Medemer,’ which means “addition” and “coming together” in Amharic with hopes to promote cooperation amongst Ethiopia’s ethnically divided society. Regardless of Ahmed’s experimenting in mechanisms of unifying the nation through pan-Ethiopianism, ethnic violence has been at an all-time high since the start of his administration. The main driving factor behind the increase in ethnic conflict?
Well, it’s Facebook.
In June of 2020, a prominent activist and musician from the Oromo ethnic group, Haachalu Hundessa, was shot and killed in the country’s capital of Addis Ababa. What Ethiopia witnessed in the following days of Hundessa’s death was devastating. Young mobs of violent individuals fueled by hate speech on Facebook began conducting ethnically motivated killings in the capital and throughout the region of Oromia, targeting minority ethnic groups. As a result, more than 150 innocent people were killed. Almost immediately after his killing, hateful content inciting mass-scale violence dominated Facebook as mobs not only killed innocent civilians of minority ethnic groups but also destroyed and burned their properties. According to VICE, these mobs “lynched, beheaded, and dismembered their victims.”
Facebook was the platform that reverberated content calling for attacks on civilians based on their religion and ethnicity, including posts urging the mobs to burn the homes of ethnic minority civilians in the Oromia—insinuating that they did not belong there. Ethiopian ethnic-nationalists on Facebook actively engage in the dehumanization of other ethnic groups, the out-group, while uplifting a victimhood narrative (Workneh, 2021). Many of these ethnic nationalist groups on Facebook base their agenda upon historical grievances against others, making it easier for polarization. These underlying cleavages include disputes to land and lack of political representation in previous regimes, setting the stage for political actors using Facebook to mobilize large groups of people that feel historically marginalized (Workneh, 2021).
Since the beginning of Ahmed’s administration, ethnic killing and mob violence have resurged —and businesses of ethnic minorities and churches became the target of vengeance for ethnic nationalist groups (Workneh, 2021). Ethnic nationalist notions of inter-group victimhood, supremacy, and outrage also began to circulate on platforms like Facebook, pages representing ethnic groups like the Amhara, Tigray, and Oromo began to surface as they spread content that called for aggression. These accounts also have large followings (Workneh, 2021). What can be found in these Facebook pages representing Ethiopia’s dominating ethnic groups are polarized social spaces where Ethiopians are only interacting with “like-minded” people and rejecting interaction with those of different ethnicities than them. An Ethiopian political blogger reported that other Ethiopians would categorize him as a “traitor” on Facebook for his condemnation of a mob lynching a man, reflecting how Ethiopia’s polarized society would go as far as normalizing such violence if it was directed towards the rival ethnic group or out-group (Workneh, 2021). In Ethiopia, competing ethnic groups view each other as perpetual enemies that threaten their way of life, hence why such extreme acts have become normal political tactics. Due to his name’s ethnic affiliation—the blogger received backlash from ethnic nationalist pages and accounts as they sent him death threats while justifying the mob attacks (Workneh, 2021). Ethiopian digital political discourse is run by “identity-based social media outrage and outgroup hate discourses,” writes Professor Workneh of Kent States University, who is specialized in technological proliferation and state-media relations in Ethiopia (Workneh, 2021).
This is not the first time Facebook has witnessed ethnic violence take shape on its platform. Ethiopia also isn’t the first country with the Free Basics and Free Operator Solution programs to fall into a vicious cycle of unregulated hate speech and violence. Facebook was under fire in 2017 for a similar situation in Myanmar, where the company was accused of allowing genocidal content that called for the extermination of Rohingya Muslims to spread. The genocide and mass displacement of the Rohingya did happen— except Facebook only took accountability after the lives of thousands of Rohingya were gravely impacted. There is a strong correlation between the rise of anti-Rohingya hate speech on the platform and the installment of the Facebook Free Basics program, the same program present in Ethiopia. This program provided access to data alongside several internet services, including Facebook— which many people from countries with low digital literacy rates (such as Ethiopia and Myanmar) conflated with news media sources. Ethiopia has an internet penetration rate below 18%, one of the lowest in Africa. The rapid expansion of the internet and Facebook’s desire to “connect the world” has opened pandora’s box of complex ethical issues as developing countries pay the ultimate cost for access to the internet via Facebook’s access programs.
Access Now, a digital rights advocacy group — released an open letter to Facebook urging the company to protect Ethiopians from the growing incitement of violence on its platform. They called for Facebook to “establish regular and rapid-action mechanisms to enable civil society to report” amongst many other immediate requests, such as making content reporting available in Oromo and Tigrinya languages— two of the most spoken languages in Ethiopia. Additionally, other immediate demands included: informing Ethiopian users about reporting mechanisms, utilizing Ethiopian content moderators, establishing early warning signs for escalation, and most importantly— conducting in-depth human rights assessments before entering a country’s market. Facebook replied with no substantial promises to consider Access Now’s appeals, only a mere recognition of the issue as they reiterated what they have already done to “reduce the spread of inflammatory content in Ethiopia.”
Tristan Harris, President of the Center of Humane Technology and former Design Ethicist at Google (known for his debut in the documentary “Social Dilemma,” which explores how tech companies in Silicon Valley program AI and algorithms to monetize from the data of social media users) states that Ethiopia’s usage of Facebook is in a situation where “content is becoming the basis for what people believe as true or false; utterly frightening.” Harris has also stressed the dangerous path Ethiopia is on, mainly because of the Free Basics program. Ethiopia is a country with weak media infrastructure and zero public libraries, which leaves the population relying on Facebook for all their critical information. Harris further states that the Facebook setup in Ethiopia results in “people making assertions and pushing their biases and hate through the tools of the attention economy. And that economy rewards outrage and inflammatory material. We have a system that rewards the worst aspects of our information society”. More recently, Facebook’s AI director has come out and revealed that the company’s focus on amplifying user engagement by all means “also favors controversy, misinformation, and extremism.” Facebook’s relentless urge to maximize engagement means that it is not dedicated to combatting the violent political polarization growing on its platforms.
Facebook’s lack of urgency in addressing the life-threatening hate speech on its platform in Ethiopia lays the ground for a deeply polarized society that lacks mutual tolerance and social cohesion— deeply entrenching the collective sentiment of “Us versus Them.” As Facebook continues to proliferate ethnicized hate speech, Ethiopia will be on a dangerous path of normalizing undemocratic behaviors such as mob violence and ethnic massacres.
McCoy, Jennifer, and Murat Somer. “Toward a theory of pernicious polarization and how it harms democracies: Comparative evidence and possible remedies.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 681.1 (2019): 234-271.
McCoy, Jennifer, Tahmina Rahman, and Murat Somer. “Polarization and the global crisis of democracy: Common patterns, dynamics, and pernicious consequences for democratic polities.” American Behavioral Scientist 62.1 (2018): 16-42.
Workneh, Téwodros W. “Social media, protest, & outrage communication in Ethiopia: toward fractured publics or pluralistic polity?.” Information, Communication & Society (2020): 1-20.