Social media disinformation
Recent political and security turmoil in Ethiopia has been marked by an uptick in social media based political content. Much like the rest of the world, use of internet platforms by individual activists, organizations as well as citizens for the purpose of perpetuating political views is on the rise. This trend is expected to increase as Ethiopia continues to make strides in information communication and technology. The drive towards digitalization in east Africa will no doubt bring benefits to the region’s economic development. Moreover, it is an unavoidable trend of the future that must be embraced.
Nonetheless, enough attention must be given to the manipulation of social media political content by state as well as non-state actors, driven by manipulative propaganda, what is sometimes referred to a gray propaganda or the strategy of tension.
In February 2023, amid church split tensions and calls for protests, the government of Ethiopia (GoE) enacted a blanket ban on social media platforms Facebook, TikTok and YouTube. Twitter and to a lesser extent telegram continued to function normally. Subsequent events, including the political assassination of an important ruling party leader in the Amhara region, as well as leaks associated with the national university entrance exam have been used as justification for the continued ban of social media to date. International rights groups have denounced these moves, but the GoE cites ongoing platform manipulations as well as incitement of violence as reason for blockage. Despite ban however, users are still able to access information using a virtual proxy. In fact, the biggest barrier to internet access for a vast majority is not the ban, but cost.
Ethiopia currently does not have the technical, legal, or regulatory framework to guard against information-based agitation techniques on social media platforms. Political content on social media reflects the country’s hyper identity-ethnic based politics. To that extent, content has been largely devoid of rational debate, overshadowed by hate-speech and incitement. While these features are not unique, they do pose a heightened risk due to myriad of socio-political circumstance in a tense post-conflict environment.
By enlarge social media crusades targeting Ethiopian as well as international audiences have come from abroad. The recently diminished #TigrayGenocide was an organized campaign orchestrated by diaspora-based supporters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It aimed to vilify actions of the GoE, following surprise attack of northern command national army installations on November4, 2020. A previous report by Getfact covered the premeditated origins and goals of this campaign. Despite glaring inconsistencies however, the campaign garnered enough sway in the mainstream media, who continued to echo these talking points throughout the northern conflict from 2020-2022. Other copycat “genocide” narratives, including the #AmharaGenocide sought to emulate similar emotional reactions by target groups.
This is not to deny the extent of the human toll. It is not to suggest rape as well as other atrocities common in war were absent. The real suffering caused by the war is immense. However, emotionally charged, and overstated categorizations such as “genocide”, and or “systematic weaponization of rape” distort facts, making rational initiatives for peace and reconciliation difficult. Moreover, this is being done deliberately. While the collateral damage in Ethiopia has been severe, equally stark is the extent to which information manipulation and sensationalizing has been used to perpetuate and worsen conflict by groups and individuals claiming humanitarian concern but having ulterior political motives.
Psychological manipulation and perception dissonance
Organized influence peddlers operated in what Daniel S, Hall, of the U.S Joint Task Force described as “anxiety provoking manipulation of perception for political propaganda”.
While discussing the strategic cognitive terrain of propaganda, Hall argues, ‘anxiety plays a significant role in cognitive dissonance, where emotions are the driving force behind changing one’s perceptions. Strong emotions are hard to ignore, while weaker emotions fade quickly. Studies on the potency of online content have shown that narratives that evoke anger or fear spread faster, reach more people, and last longer than positive narratives. Exploiters take advantage of prolonged periods of strong negative emotions to manipulate people’s thoughts in favor of their own political agenda.’ In the case of recent events in Ethiopia, an example of this can be seen in the incessant social media campaign to depict a supposed ongoing horrifying genocide by state actors and their allies.
Hall goes one to say, ‘despite people’s dislike for anxiety, they often engage in behaviors that contradict their stated beliefs. Research has found that peer group social norms are powerful psychological factors that allow individuals to act in ways that conflict with their beliefs without feeling guilty. Those who have a high external venue of control are more likely to blame others for their own actions. Additionally, individuals are more likely to engage in behaviors that go against their beliefs if they align with the social norms of their peer group. Exploiters create environments that influence people to downplay inconsistent thoughts and engage in behaviors that further the exploiters’ harmful agendas. Moreover, these manufactured environments that assign blame to scapegoats make it even more effective in encouraging people to disregard alternative thoughts and views.’
Visible social media operations in Ethiopia, which as mentioned earlier are coming largely from abroad have designs to illicit peer group emotional reactions, based on ethnicity or sometimes religion. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were initially the most active spaces. Partly driven by recent GoE platform bans however, agitators migrated their activities to TikTok. A recent report describes how “Social media influencers in Africa’s second-largest country (Ethiopia) are helping to stoke conflict – and making money along the way.” The article posits influencers organized a coordinated campaign of tension between ethnic Amhara and Oromo during a particularly edgy period of a split within the Orthodox church synod.
The central question revolves around responsibility. To what extent should TikTok, and similar social media platforms, take measures to limit the dissemination of content meant to incite hate-based violence, especially when there are financial incentives involved? Furthermore, is there a possibility that the pursuit of profit from politically charged content might paves the way for even more extreme or dangerous content, potentially leading to real-life threats of violence?
No matter how manipulative a particular information operation may be in dissuading individual or group rational thinking however, to have real world impact, it must be accompanied by actions that reinforce the propaganda narrative. Pernicious psychological operations (PsYops) employee a real world false flag event that is then used to bolster the propaganda narrative by giving it an aura of reality. This is an area that deserves more research vis-à-vis conflict in Ethiopia. For instance, there is very clear evidence in Alamata of an active effort by the TPLF to create fake evidence of massacres. This was done by transporting corpses of killed combatants for burial in mass graves. A report by journalist Alistair Thompson, who visited the area in November, 2022 described how this was indeed carried out. He considers whether similar actions have been orchestrated in other areas in northern Ethiopia.
A string of assassinations targeting government officials as well as a popular singer, Hachalu Hundessa have been false flag operations. The perpetrators quickly assigned blame for the killings to state actors, and at times to rival political groups. This was deliberate action to sow instability. Since 2019 hundreds of officials have been killed in Amhara, Tigray, Oromia and Gumuz in this way.
In Wellega zone, OLA insurgents have used political assassination against officials since 2020. Violent action against political opponents, be they civilian or government officials has been a steady feature of OLA action in this part of Ethiopia. One particularly gruesome strategy of tension has been the group’s targeting of Amhara civilians, including women children.
A report by Abren briefly described the role of terrorism in OLA action. Reoccurrence of attacks on civilians have the utility of generating the type of psychological dissonance that weakens trust in government and state authority. Kidnappings and extortions against noncombatants have the same psychological impact. The combined effect of these actions has the intended effect of eliciting a sense of lawlessness on the part of the population. Feebleness of government action in curbing this violence is cause for alarm and a resurgence of vigilantism.
But is law enforcement action on the ground enough? Without addressing the information space, which is a crucial component of terrorism, doing so will be testing. In Particular, when perpetrators of these violent insurgencies are transmitting propaganda from abroad, and sometimes as legally registered media and advocacy entities.
As described by Daniel Hall, ‘manipulated dissonance mechanisms imbedded within culturally, ethnically, or religiously relevant narratives create psychological triggers that can thrust irrational societal tendencies to the forefront.’ These dynamics make it easier for societies to fall victim to gray, or even worse, black propaganda. The purpose of these influence operations is sometimes referred to as the strategy of tension, to sow anxiety and loss of hope in formal structures of authority, generating a sense of public confusion and bewilderment.
Black propaganda has a long history in the Cold War and was extensively used by both East and West. It is the type of malicious propaganda linked to covert psychological operations, where the source may be hidden or falsely attributed to an authority, leading to the dissemination of falsehoods, fabrications, and deceptive information. Black propaganda represents the epitome of this deceptive practice, encompassing various forms of creative deceit.
The Soviet Union used it to disseminate discord, especially in the Western sphere. Of particular interest to Africa, however, is the way in which black propaganda was secretly used by British intelligence to “encourage ethnic tensions, sowing chaos, inciting violence and reinforcing anti-communist ideas”, and in the name of fighting Soviet as well as Chinese influence on the continent, based on declassified documents report made public by the Guardian News.
According to the Guardian, “the effort, run from the mid-1950s through to the late 70s by a unit in London that was part of the Foreign Office, focused on cold war enemies such as the Soviet Union and China, leftwing liberation groups – African state leaders that the UK saw as threats to its interests”.
Given current resurgence of rivalry between Russia/China and the U.S-led West, similar tactics of information warfare could be used to preserve sphere of influence in Africa, although the dynamic may differ slightly from the first Cold War.
The Strategy of Tension
To understand this further we can examine a case study from Europe, “Strategy of Tension: The Belgian Terrorist Crisis 1982-1986”, an historical reference that offers some relevant insights.
From 1982 to 1986, Belgium experienced a string of terrorist attacks that resulted in the loss of over 30 lives. This campaign stands out as one of the most recent reminders of the strategy of tension in Western European history. Two prominent groups played a role: one claimed to be a leftist radical sect, while the other was an anonymous cell widely referred to as the “mad killers.” Subsequent investigations have revealed connections between the “mad killers” and Neo-Nazi organizations.
Both groups acted to manufacture a sense of public hopelessness in the central authority of the state, to overthrow it. During a period of heightened political turmoil in Belgium, both groups seemed to share the goal of destabilizing the Belgian State. Interestingly, despite appearing to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum, there were widespread suggestions that these seemingly opposing factions were collaborating for a common purpose. Furthermore, official investigations revealed links between the terrorist groups and elements within Belgian state security apparatus.
The Belgian case of utilizing terrorism within a political strategy referred to as the “strategy of tension,” draws inspiration from similar tactics employed in Italy during the late 1960s.
In the case of Ethiopia, the dynamics at play are not too dissimilar. The TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), two officially allied armed groups have waged coordinated terrorism as well as black propaganda against the state, as well as deliberate attacks on noncombatants, particularly Amhara civilians, with tacit aim of generating an angry response, even violent response, leading to a sense of more chaos in the country.
This has spawned a third group of armed insurgents, which recently emerged out of the popular Fano battalions in Amhara region. Increasingly, the new-Fano share the common theme of fighting the central government. They also have the knack for false flag political assassinations, something all insurgent groups in Ethiopia share in common. Several government officials have been killed in this manner over the past four years. Nonetheless, their political views are irreconcilable to that of the TPLF or the OLA.
Impracticality of a steady coalition between the trio insurgencies means their activities cancel out, making their actions meaningless in the long run, especially where two of them in combination is incapable of assuming power. Their entire purpose for existence seems to be to perpetuate more conflict, sow more tension, anxiety, and a sense of lawlessness, which ironically hurts their own professed constituency.
This begs the question, who stands to benefit, given the circumstance? The core structure and action of the trio insurgencies make them susceptible to manipulation and exploitation by external provocateurs. The strategy of tension in this case tends to advantage an outside entity. This possibility cannot be ruled out, especially given recent international dynamics and narratives on the Ethiopian conflict. Together with parallel actions that threaten the stability of religious institutions in Ethiopia, a sharp sense of unruliness dominates public perceptions, a situation that makes governing more difficult. Utility of these ongoing tensions for regime change or regime augmentation is entirely plausible, but to what end?
The convergence of disinformation, perception dissonance, and the strategy of tension vis-à-vis recent conflict in Ethiopia is worthy of a deeper examination. Although propaganda has been the main topic of discussion, perhaps due to ease of recognition, the effects of psychological dissonance and the strategy of tension have largely been ignored. Relatedly, how the existing information space of Africa’s volatile political economy will be impacted by Social media and AI is very much an under-appreciated topic.