10.11.2023 Author: Ivan Kopytsev

Social Networks as a Channel of Ethnic Mobilization: the Case of Ethiopia

Social Networks

At the end of October 2023, Amnesty International* published a report implicating Meta**, the company that owns, inter alia, Facebook** and Instagram**, in widespread human rights violations during the 2020-2022 conflict in the Tigray region. Thus, according to the human rights organization, Meta* failed to take effective measures to curb the spread of content advocating ethnic hatred and violence. Although the signing of agreements in Pretoria effectively ended the conflict-active phase a year ago, on November 3, 2022, many questions related to the unprecedented intensity and brutality of the confrontation, even by the standards of the Horn of Africa, remained unanswered. In fact, the case of Tigray highlights the problem of social networks and their influence on inciting hatred in multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies in Africa and, thus, deserves close attention from the expert community.

In the present context of rapidly accelerating digitalization, which in recent years has increasingly embraced third world countries, noticeable changes are taking place in the tactics of participants in ethnic conflicts. Speaking at the 7th session of the Forum on Minority Issues in 2014, R. Izsák, Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, noted the growing use of social networks to incite hatred towards minorities and shape up the consciousness of the majority for violent actions. At first glance, such a remark is not so important for sub-Saharan Africa: only 22% of the total subregion’s population used mobile Internet in 2021, according to data for that year. At the beginning of 2020, only 15% of Ethiopians had access to the World Wide Web, and social media coverage was a measly 5.5% compared to the global average of 55-60%. However, a number of studies provide compelling evidence that social media is an effective tool for political mobilization, even in countries such as Ethiopia. In particular, an analysis of the influence of social networks on mass protests of 2014-2018 in Oromia regional state demonstrated that low network coverage throughout the country did not become a serious obstacle to the political mobilization of the population. Consequently, the role of social networks in the political life of developing and technologically lagging societies cannot be determined only on the basis of statistical characteristics. A significant influence is exerted by the factors that initiate the creation of a particular narrative, as well as the consolidation of groups to which a particular appeal is addressed.

Broadly speaking, the social network mechanisms of influence on ethnic sentiments, collectively shared features of the worldview that have developed within an ethnic group, can be structured within two subgroups: 1) creating a narrative aimed at shaping certain moods and opinions or inciting ethnic hatred and provoking extremist sentiments in its extreme form; 2) direct instructions to supporters in order to consolidate efforts to solve the problem facing the group. Moreover, the first “method” often precedes the second: such a connection may not so much be the result of a thoughtful strategy, but rather the result of an obvious rational and involuntary choice.

Moving on to the case of Ethiopia, we should turn to the course of events. Thus, with the outbreak of hostilities in Tigray, on November 4, 2020, a campaign was launched on social networks in support of the inhabitants of this region, ethnic Tigrayans, which included a call on the international community to recognize the fact of genocide carried out by federal troops, Amhara militias and the Eritrean army (#TigrayGenocide, #StandWithTigray). In response, government supporters both in Ethiopia itself and among representatives of the diaspora massively published posts aimed at denying accusations of genocide by the TPLF and supporting the idea of ​​country unity in order to oust the Tigrayan agenda from the information space (“Hashtag Battle”) (#EthiopiaPrevails, #UnityForEthiopia, #NoMore). During the period of government control over the region (November 2020 – June 2021), the confrontation between narratives on social networks gradually expanded, and Ethiopia recorded a sharp increase in the number of users registering for the first time or resuming the activity on their accounts. Outward orientation became the main feature of information campaigns at this stage. With the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) abandoning conventional warfare and retreating into the countryside, the TPLF supporters have attempted to enlist leading international actors in solving the humanitarian crisis in the region and include them in the investigation of alleged ethnic massacres. Changes in the information space occurred at the end of June – beginning of July 2021 after the rapid retreat of government forces from Tigray and the advance of the TPLF in the adjacent Amhara region. The conflict began to take on the features of a zero-sum game and for some ethnic groups, it became existential. Realizing all the risks, the ruling elites began to “clean up the backs”. Mass arrests of ethnic Tigrayans took place across the country, intensifying as the TDF advanced into the Amhara Region. In addition, the authorities used structures responsible for controlling social networks and having significant experience in conducting disinformation and propaganda campaigns in the past.

A gradual transition to the previously discussed “second” mechanism of influencing ethnic sentiments probably occurred in the fall of 2021, when the successes of the rebels questioned the ability of the federal army not only to conduct offensive operations, but also to defend the capital. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, while urging the population to join the militias being formed across the country to defend Ethiopia, has also repeatedly addressed his supporters on Twitter** and Facebook**, pointing out the ubiquity and complexity of the “Tigray threat.” Thus, a direct call was made to mobilize ethnic groups loyal to the government, which inevitably exacerbated anti-Tigray sentiment at the everyday level, increasing the threat of ethnic cleansing. Efforts by Twitter** and Facebook** to prevent incitement of ethnic discord online have led to the blocking of a number of both pro-government and pro-Tigray accounts, and some posts by officials have been removed or flagged as objectionable. However, such targeted measures have not proven effective in ending the “war on social networks.”

Therefore, it should be noted that social networks can be used for the purpose of ethnic mobilization even in technologically imperfect communities where the level of Internet coverage does not reach 20%. This conclusion is relevant both for mobilization carried out for political purposes (protest activity) and for the consolidation of an ethnic group for the purpose of carrying out violent actions or creating optimal conditions for their implementation. During the conflict in Tigray, the government managed to unite and galvanize supporters: campaigns conducted over social media were undoubtedly one of the factors that made it possible to quickly attract significant forces of ethical Amharas from various parts of the region to defend the strategically important city of Dessie. At the same time, social networks have become a conduit for radical ideas and contributed to the formation of anti-Tigray sentiment throughout the country. Although the conflict-active phase ended in November 2022, the exact number of victims of ethnically motivated violence has yet to be counted, and the achieved level of polarization of society cannot be overcome overnight.

* – recognized as foreign agents in the Russian Federation

** – recognized as extremist organizations in the Russian Federation


Kopytsev Ivan, Political Scientist, Research Assistant at the Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Institute of International Studies at MGIMO University of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, exclusively for the internet journal New Eastern Outlook.

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