France Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, stressed during her hearing before the US Senate on Tuesday the social network role in the spread of ethnic violence in Ethiopia. A country where the influence of Facebook is much less documented than in Burma, where it has been accused of having served as a platform to facilitate the repression against the Rohingya. Bis repetita?
It’s a short, almost unnoticed sentence from Frances Haugen’s testimony before the US Senate on Tuesday, October 5. The whistleblower and former Facebook executive mentioned the infamous role of the social network in the spread of ethnic hatred in Burma, before adding “as is the case today in Ethiopia”.
Facebook has, in fact, been accused on multiple occasions since 2015 by NGOs and the United Nations Human Rights Council of having played a “major role” in the dissemination of propaganda that facilitated the massacres and persecutions of the Muslim minority of the Rohingya.
Messages with tragic consequences
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook himself, apologized for the mistakes made by the American social network in Burma. The group had promised to do more and better. In one sentence, Frances Haugen suggested to US senators on Tuesday that it was not. The Ethiopian example proves, in his eyes, that the platform still fails to avoid being used to spread hateful messages that serve to justify large-scale violence in the real world.
The pernicious influence of the social media giant on ethnic violence perpetrated before and since the start of the violent conflict in Tigray ten months ago has, so far, been little documented. Perhaps because the situation in Ethiopia is more complex than in Burma, perhaps because the fighting is still raging … Anyway, all the people interviewed by France 24 agree that “Facebook has not learned from its mistakes “, agree that” Facebook has not learned from its mistakes “, like Simo-Pekka Parviainen, a former Finnish diplomat specializing in African issues and author of a tribune denouncing the role of the social media giant in Ethiopia.
Just consult the latest report from the Center for advancement of rights and democracy (Card), an Ethiopian NGO, to realize the violence of the exchanges on Facebook. Screenshots sent to France 24 by an Amhara activist, a supporter of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, show an influential member of another ethnic group calling on his supporters on Facebook to use all possible means against the “fascist and genocidal regime” in place in Addis Ababa. It is also not difficult to find activists from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) who complain about hateful messages on Facebook against the Tigrayan minority.
Ethnic hate speech online has already, as in Burma, had tragic consequences in Ethiopia. The assassination of Ethiopian singer Hachalu Hundessa on June 29, 2020, is linked to a disinformation campaign on Facebook aimed at portraying him as a traitor to the cause of the Oromo, another Ethiopian ethnicity to which the musician belonged.
After his murder, violence erupted in the Ethiopian capital and in the Oromia region – fueled by other hate messages targeting other ethnic groups – resulting in nearly a hundred deaths. Massacres which pushed the government to cut off access to the Internet for more than two weeks.
Despite the importance of web access in this very connected country compared to the rest of Africa (one in four households against a penetration rate of 15% on average for the continent), nearly 80% of Ethiopians ” were declared in favor of shutting down the Internet, according to a survey conducted by Ethiotube, a popular Ethiopian media. “This type of survey may not be the most representative or the most scientific, but it shows that people are afraid of the consequences of what can be posted online,” said Teddy Workneh, communications professor at Ethiopian origin at Kent State University (United States), contacted by France 24.
“My job is often to specifically study the worst hate speech messages on the Internet, I still decided to delete my Facebook account and put my work on the subject in parentheses,” says the researcher, one among the first to take an interest in the spread of hate online in Ethiopia. “I needed to take a step back because being faced with such a level of toxicity in online discussions about my country was too hard for me. had been with my family to another place at the wrong time with the wrong name [connoté ethniquement, NDLR], I would have been targeted because of these messages, “he continues.
Beneficial role until 2018
Facebook has not always been this hell of hate for Ethiopian users, however. The social network even “played a particularly constructive role between 2010 and 2018, allowing Ethiopian users to conduct constructive conversations about issues such as human rights, democracy and political activism,” recalls Teddy Workneh.
“We did a large study on hate content online in Ethiopia in 2015, and our conclusion was that they were very much in the minority. was very repressive, “underlines Iginio Gagliardone, specialist in online political communication at Wits University in Johannesburg, contacted by France 24.
Everything changed from 2018. Paradoxically, the rise of hateful content on social networks is, in part, an indirect consequence of the first measures taken by Abiy Ahmed in 2018 to promote freedom of expression, suggests the researcher of South African University. The liberation of speech has generated a flood of disinformation and incitement to violence as the hotbeds of tension have multiplied in this country of 90 ethnic groups.
This is why Iginio Gagliardone does not blame Facebook for all the ethnic violence in Ethiopia. “It is an armed conflict with root causes, and if it had not been for Facebook, there would have been another medium to spread hatred,” he says.
On the other hand, “I blame the platform for not having reacted more vigorously and for letting these comments circulate freely,” he assures us. For him, it is the proof of “the hypocrisy of Facebook which, on the one hand, installs a gigantic submarine cable to better connect Africa in the name of the importance of the continent for the group, but in parallel does not deploy sufficient means to avoid this kind of drift. “
Lack of human resources
It’s hard to argue that Facebook is unaware of the magnitude of the problem. “It’s very frustrating for us, we alert the platform to the multiplication of hate messages since 2018,” said Berhan Taye, an Ethiopian independent researcher who worked for the NGO Access Now, contacted by France 24.
Facebook is doing its best. the American group announced, in April 2021, dismantling a network of influence based in Egypt who were trying to sow discord in Ethiopia. Specific means have also been deployed to ensure that Ethiopian legislative elections in June 2021 went off without a hitch.
It must be said that the context is difficult for the American giant. It’s not like “in Burma where it is quite easy to know who were the bad guys and who were the good guys, whereas the situation here is much more nuanced and complex, which can make Facebook hesitate to intervene”, points out Iginio Gagliardone.
Still, Facebook is failing in its most basic duties in terms of content moderation, says Berhan Taye. “When we activists deliver lists of problematic messages directly to members of Facebook, they delete them, but ordinary users who report hateful content don’t have that chance,” she said.
But the platform is above all accused of not having enough human resources on site to deal with the flow of hatred online. This was already one of the main requests made by Berhan Taye in the open letter she sent to Facebook on behalf of Access Now in July 2020. But she still does not know today how many content moderators for Ethiopia are active. “All I could learn is that it’s a two-digit number… which can be anything between 11 and 99,” she explains.
Which seems far from sufficient, compared to the efforts made by Facebook in other countries, such as Germany, for example, where the social network employs 1,200 content moderators.
Contacted by France 24, Facebook confirmed that it did not want to give the exact number of moderators for Ethiopia while stressing having “strongly invested in human terms, and technologically to face the unique challenges [du pays]The group also claims their team is able to moderate content in “all major languages” spoken in Ethiopia.
However, they are not based in the country. Knowing that the absence of a team on site had already been one of the main criticisms addressed to Facebook in Burma.
For Berhan Taye, the Ethiopian case is emblematic “of the treatment reserved for countries with small languages which are not important for the group’s income”.
But this lack of consideration could backfire. “Facebook is not the only one able to do something, there is also the Ethiopian regulator”, recalls Teddy Workneh, of the University of Kent. But, he continues, as this body “has neither the technical means nor the sufficient knowledge of the subtleties of Facebook, it could very well be that, in the end, it simply decides to completely ban the platform. Which, despite the drifts, would be a loss for everyone “.
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