Three-year monitoring identifies Ethiopia’s engagement in disinformation

30 Sep

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

After three years of monitoring states’ disinformation activities on the social media, the Oxford University has just published its peer-reviewed findings as The Global Disinformation Order: 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation.

In this 23-page report, Ethiopia is mentioned 14 times, in a pack of 69 others. It endeavors to explain the country’s disinformation activities, which innocuously is defined as attempt to influence the media and public thinking.

The report has gone under the hood to establish reasons why and for what purpose states use the social media. Its heaviest utilizers, mostly authoritarian states, are identified to have three reasons in making use of the social media:

a.  to suppress fundamental human rights;

b.  to discredit political opposition; and

c.  to drown out political dissent. :

The report sums up these activities by states—70 of them it has identified by name —that also are co-opting the available social media technologies, as follows:

“The co-option of social media technologies provides authoritarian regimes with a powerful tool to shape public discussions and spread propaganda online, while simultaneously surveilling, censoring, and restricting digital public spaces.”

Twitter and Facebook, according to the Oxford University’s monitoring report, are the prominent social media platforms of manipulation, followed by WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram. As per the report, the Ethiopian regime is also said to solely rely on Facebook. On this, however, known to me too are government-hired twitter users in both Amharic and English.

In Africa, besides Ethiopia, Eritrea, Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda (mentioned only on Table 2 and 4), South Africa, Sudan, Tunisia and Zimbabwe engage in disinformation activities along with their communication strategies, according to the monitoring report.


In respect of skills and knowledge diffusion, Ethiopia is categorized as engaging in ‘medium cyber troop capacity’.  What it means is that, its disinformation activities “involves teams that have a much more consistent form and strategy, involving full-time staff members who are employed year-round to control the information space. These medium-capacity teams often coordinate with multiple actor types, and experiment with a wide variety of tools and strategies for social media manipulation. Some medium-capacity teams conduct influence operations abroad.”

In other words, the Ethiopian government largely utilizes ‘cyber troops’ both at home and abroad, to supplement its utilization of government agencies in its efforts to leverage those benefits of the social media for purposes it has in mind—to shore up its politics. Two competing interests of the government in utilizing the social media are: (i) getting as many supporters, and (ii) discrediting its opponents.

In Ethiopia, the legal opposition and Ethiopian diaspora have for a long time been painted as either being mutually support interest group, sympathetic to the opposition, or outright enemies of ’the state’. After the 2018 change in the country, the opposition was no longer monolithic, nor totally in the opposition camp (who and whatever it is).

After the change in the country, however, as if on a graduating cylinder, both the state and the diaspora have started to see one another with growing suspicion. Beset by ongoing ethnic tensions and conflicts, no sooner than it came the Abiy Ahmed reform has begun to feel itself in the like of an abandoned ship on troubled sea.

Why not when, according to this latest report, the Abiy Administration “…using online and offline sources of data about users, and paying for advertisements on popular social media platforms, some cyber troops target specific communities with disinformation or manipulated media.” Even the TPLF out of power, its cadres, to name one, is found getting access on Forbes, as per Elias Meseret, to publicize Penresa in Ethiopia, what and for whom has not come out! Did he use the old way he knows, or there is telling us something we do not know? The usually well-informed Elias Meseret too asks who owns Penresa in Ethiopia?

Incidentally, I lean from an unofficial source, distributed in PDF around the world, the Abiy Admin has 2,210 paid social media troops. Of these, those ‘cyber troops’ abroad are paid monthly $1,000, while those at home receive through their bank accounts from birr 10,000 to 20,000, depending individual’s quality of service or effectiveness!

Regarding Ethiopia’s ‘cyber troops’, I recall writing on my blog The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO) about Yonatan Tesfaye’s imprisonment Part I, who was charged with terrorism crime in July 2017. I was trying to litigate whether it was the Ethiopian government that should be questioned and crucified, including owing to its use of China-trained cadres as its cyber troops’ on Facebook that were the backbone of the horror and subversion within our society.

That was my conclusion in the past. Nonetheless, it pains me to state here that it is likely to be my conclusion about the present too.

We now read between the lines of this Oxford University monitoring report since it covers full 2018, as shown in Fig 1, Ethiopia has already continued what the TPLF has started, with the result it being identified as one of the 70 states engaged in shaping the Global Disinformation Order. In those times—exactly as the report has put it—its purposes were undermining its internal opponents and drowning out political dissent within Ethiopia and the worldwide Ethiopian diaspora communities.

As history was being made in the country in the past year and a half, which encouraged citizens to think and believe the repressive system was being dismantled, to our shock and dismay, we are now learning the leaders of the change have anointed it to get slowly get going along the same discredited path. Take the number of people that are fast filling the prisons. Ask about those that are being apprehended and suffer beatings by police. The fact that this has been sanctioned to continue, i.e., has brought its own trap — disguise the revived serial violations of fundamental human rights of Ethiopians. This is painful.

In our own very eyes, terribly being flogged both openly and secretly are the trust between citizens and those we enthusiastically embraced as emergent forces of democracy. Unfortunately, they are seen allowing respect for fundamental human rights to be violated in unmistakeable ways.

Yesterday I noticed on the occasion of Demera, the faithful of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church being attacked by state agents and vigilantes they reportedly utilize from time to time, I felt there is sufficient reason to be preoccupied with in Ethiopia!

All I understand now is that the Abiy Administration has become reliant, among others, on its social media troops—China trained hired hands both at home and abroad—and cadres they have coopeted. Therefore, it goes without saying, no sooner than its arrival on the political scene, this young administration has chosen to throw away the affection and trust citizens have reposed on it —along the way endangering Ethiopia’s future.

Having seen what they have, the Oxford researchers’ conclusion rightly and wistfully underlines:

” Social media, which was once heralded as a force for freedom and democracy, has come under increasing scrutiny for its role in amplifying disinformation, inciting violence, and lowering levels of trust in media and democratic institutions.”


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