Let’s face it: Ethiopia is at a crossroads, unsure if it will continue to exist as a coherent nation-state or if it will crumble into a collection of regions that variously fight each other or the rump leftovers of the central government. Two big words are knocking on Ethiopia’s door with increasing impatience: FAILED STATE. We only need to look across our border with Somalia to see what this pitiful reality looks like. Of course, you may well be thinking: ‘we’re not Somalia, we’re different’. So is Yemen and South Sudan, so is Congo. And look where they are. And look for how long they have been there. The prospects of ‘fixing’ these countries are dim. 

In Ethiopia, the war in Tigray has undergone a dramatic turn. The TPLF has claimed victory after having regained control of Mekelle, the regional capital, and it would seem that the central government has sued for peace by declaring a unilateral ceasefire. (1) For eight months, TPLF forces have fought Ethiopia’s national defense forces, leading to an ‘unprecedented civilian death’ toll as well as mass displacement and the alleged use of sexual violence. All of which has, obviously, caused international outrage.

At the start of the conflict, Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed sold the war against the TPLF as a sort of police operation to remove what was presented as a criminal organization. But from the very beginning it was clear that the conflict in Tigray was, in fact, one of ‘total war’ –that is to say, a war that is fought on all fronts. It is fought with weapons, of course, but also with the ‘reality of hunger and prospects of food aid’. Another noticeable aspect of this ‘total war’ has been the continued use of disinformation and outright fake news. This media battle has only occasionally been directed towards an internal audience: the real target were the Western news outlets and their trail of Western aid organizations and Western policy-makers.

For many Ethiopians and foreign observers, the most striking element of the news coverage of the Tigray war was the fact that it took such an obvious anti-government point of view. The idea that media outlets fail to grasp the complexities of a conflict is hardly news, but the bias in favour of the TPLF was striking nonetheless. (2) 

We can certainly point the finger at Abiy Ahmed: the story of a ‘Nobel Peace Prize laureate’ waging war is simply too good to refuse. Who cares about wars in other parts of Africa? They are too messy and convoluted. Mr. Saint turning out to be a Dr. Devil is a far juicier story. What every single media outlet failed to consider are the opponents in this terrible war. Variously described as rebels or as the elected government of Tigray region, their questionable track-record during their 30 years in power are never mentioned. It would seem the TPLF is a democratic movement struggling against the onslaught of a dictatorial monster. Not a word about the fact that the TPLF ruled Ethiopia as one of the continent’s most autocratic regimes: it resumé includes political persecution, outright ballot-rigging, widespread corruption and two full-scale wars in just over a decade: against Eritrea in 1998-2000, and in Somalia in 2006-2009. Not exactly peace-makers, to be fair.

Every single aspect of the war has been automatically blamed on the central government. The refugees are fleeing because of them, not because the TPLF is recruiting en-masse in village after village –and good luck refusing their requests. By this stage, some of you must have concluded that I am defending Abiy Ahmed. Not in the slightest. I have no sympathy for an opportunistic politician whose ethnic juggling has led to mass killings across other regions of Ethiopia and whose reckless policy in Tigray may succeed where the Italians failed: in actually destroying Ethiopia.

My main take on all these is the role of media. Following a relatively brief period of euphoria about the possibility that social media might usher in a golden age of global democratization, there is now widespread concern in many segments of society that social media may actually be undermining democracy (Tucker et al. 2017).(3) This fear extends not just to new or unstable democracies, which are often prone to democratic backsliding, but also to some of the world’s most venerable and established democracies, including the United States. Indeed, in little more than half a decade, we have gone from the Journal of Democracy featuring a seminal article on social media entitled “Liberation Technology” (Diamond 2010) (4) to the same journal publishing a piece as part of a forum on the 2016 U.S. elections titled “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” (Persily 2017).(5)

In Ethiopia, concerns over disinformation, fake news and grievance politics by ethnic-nationalist groups such as the TPLF and OLF have intensified in recent years. Policymakers, researchers and observers worry that these groups team up with notorious Western journalists to spread false narratives and disseminate rumors in order to shape international opinion and, by extension, government policies. The available evidence suggests that the strategic effects of disinformation are real in the Ethiopian case. Fake news, hate speech and misinformation is creeping through all social media platforms and regular media outlets. With more and more people relying on social media as a source of news, there are legitimate concerns that such content could influence audiences unable to distinguish truth from fact or news from propaganda. This “infodemic,” as Dustin Carnahan calls it, puts misleading information front and center —adding fuel to politically contentious fires and escalating social issues to the level of crises. Instead of being places where people stay connected and share the details of their lives, modern media/social media platforms are increasingly being used as sources of information.

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