[updated 11 December 2019] Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was in Stockholm to receive the Nobel Peace Prize this week. You might think that the people of Ethiopia would be buzzing with conversation and pride about this achievement. After all, Abiy has done something most thought inconceivable just a couple of years ago: initiated peace with Eritrea and, more important for day-to-day life in Ethiopia, ended the dark repression of the past quarter century.
Yet the buzz is elsewhere, the air full of talk of reform — and the threats to it. In fact, Abiy himself reflected this when he received his Prize.
During a week-long mission to Ethiopia, I found that, at the top of everyone’s list of concerns is social media’s growing power and dissemination of hate speech and disinformation.
The Prime Minister and his government launched a reform process in 2018 that could be a model for democratic transitions everywhere. It’s inclusive, in which those who used to be jailed, marginalized or exiled are part of the drafting of new laws liberalizing the media, access to information, non-governmental organizations, computer security, elections, and much else.
Reform is not a straight line of progress. It could founder, as officials and activists worry. Like all reforms, it challenges existing power brokers. Abiy’s government has not swept all former officials from positions of authority, but to its credit it has begun to exclude party hacks from positions of power and replace them with technocratic competence.
But Ethiopia is a country where governance is defined by ethnicity. Its regional states are defined by ethnic affiliation. Many Ethiopians reject this ethnic orientation — so much intermarriage and affiliation has drawn people together, not pushed them apart. Abiy himself is the son of a Christian Amhara mother and a Muslim Oromo father.
Still, open societies should protect — and even encourage — expressions of ethnic, religious and other forms of identification. And yet, for many reasons, ethnic identification and grievance have become tools of discourse that resonate in many quarters.
The sense of grievance exploded into violence in October, when a reported 86 were killed during unrest triggered, many believe, by a power struggle with not a small amount of hateful rhetoric and disinformation attached to it.
Now all that background is lead up to this: the hate and disinformation that often trigger violence and make compromise difficult have found a home in broadcast, print, and, you guessed it, social media. And with social media becoming increasingly present in the country — an estimated 6 million active Facebook users and growing attachment to YouTube, with other media amplifying their posts — online hate and disinformation dominate people’s concerns.
A robust commercial and public media should counter online hate. But decades of repression decimated the traditional sources of media. Public media was state media — and to a large extent, it still is. Independent media was intimidated out of existence. Bloggers, like the famous Zone 9 collective, were imprisoned and their websites shut down.
As a result, there are limited counters to the problems of social media. There are emerging sources for fact-checking, but nowhere near the operation seen elsewhere in Africa. The government has a vision to support independent media, and new sources of investigative reporting are making their way to the public. But it is slow going and poorly resourced.
Abiy’s Government has proposed a law to counter hate speech and disinformation, but it is overbroad, untethered to human rights standards, and could just as easily reinforce social divisions as counter online ills.
In this environment, social media’s responsibility is critical. It needs an approach directly opposite to the kind of negligence that helped Facebook become a platform for incitement in Myanmar and YouTube a tool for the viral spread of disinformation. Facebook may understand the problem, paying more attention to the country and its situation, hiring people to moderate content in Ethiopia’s principal languages, evaluating posts and conducting trainings according to their Community Standards.
But technical approaches to content moderation will never be enough. The hate and disinformation online will overwhelm platform capacity as the user base grows and users themselves deploy all sorts of coded language to avoid moderation itself.
The companies must own up to their responsibility. They cannot be mere bystanders while playing such major roles in Ethiopia’s public square. They make money from countries, and here they should devote resources to supporting independent media that itself can counter hate speech.
What they should do is create a fund — let’s start with $10 million dollars, a rounding error for both Facebook and YouTube — in which they make available grants to independent Ethiopian media outlets, related civil society organizations, and journalists. The funds should have minimal strings attached, certainly no conditions that the reporters use these platforms.
It would be a fund for training, for covering issues in the public interest, for countering disinformation but not through the technical ways the companies develop on their platforms. Give people an opportunity to report verifiable information, the funding to conduct it, the capacity for training, and to find means of distribution.
This isn’t a long-term endeavor that can afford a lengthy decision-making process. Elections are scheduled for May and online hate and disinformation will almost certainly increase.
These American behemoths can and should do the right thing.