/ 8 December 2020

A glimpse into the future of government propaganda

A streamlined Cabinet is one of the many changes Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has made during his first six months in office as he goes against the tide of global nationalist authoritarianism.
Ethiopia’s government has set up its own ‘fact-checking’ unit. But governments cannot independently fact-check themselves. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)


Ethiopia is the latest government to hijack the business of fact checking, imitating the work of independent media and repurposing it for government propaganda while in the middle of a conflict. 

One example: On 20 November, more than two weeks after the conflict in Ethiopia began, the African Union chair announced a three-person special envoy who would travel to Ethiopia to mediate, and thanked Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for accepting the initiative.

The following morning, government social media accounts and state-owned broadcasters came out swinging, calling the mediation “fake news”. The first account to deny the mediation plans was the newly created government account, the Ethiopia State of Emergency (SOE) Fact Check, which has more than 14 000 followers on Twitter and some 160 000 “likes” and “follows” on Facebook.

The government’s “fact-checking” claims, particularly pertaining to the military operation in Tigray, are troubling because the internet shutdown in the region makes it difficult to independently verify information about the conflict.  

“It’s good for them to have something on record but they are also hijacking something that becomes a function of the press to keep them [the government] in check,” said Eric Mugendi, Africa programme manager at Meedan. Mugendi previously worked at Pesa Check, an independent fact-checking site. “What these governments, or bad actors as I like to call them, are trying to do is put the media in a fix; what ends up happening is no one really knows where to look for credible information.”

It is not just the government that’s using social media to claim and spread “facts” about the conflict, directing messages towards international audiences, government critics are too. But they are using two very different strategies. 

Quantity versus quality

While the government has sought to position itself as the sole provider of reliable information, as funnelled through their SOEFactCheck account, anti-government groups have adopted the opposite approach. Until recently, anti-government accounts and messages on Twitter were having a wider reach than pro-government accounts.

The anti-government strategy appears to be one of quantity over quality — leaders, particularly in the diaspora, have encouraged followers to create new Twitter accounts, spread hashtags, respond to content and tweet at influential accounts. The result has been a significant increase in the number of single-issue accounts tweeting about Ethiopia, and a high volume of anti-government tweets. 

A sample of 90 000 tweets about Tigray and Abiy between 3 and 10 November showed that accounts created in 2020 were responsible for 30% of the discourse. More than a quarter of these tweets were from accounts created in October and November, and were overwhelmingly anti-government. We subsequently analysed more than 38 000 tweets from 13 to 19 November that included the hashtag #NationalDialogueNow, and found that nearly half (46%) of these tweets were from accounts created in July (after Ethiopian activist and singer Hachalu Hundessa was killed), October and November of this year.

Going viral

But the SOEFactCheck account recently saw a significant increase in the reach and spread of one particular tweet. The content of this tweet has the potential to undermine one of the last reliable sources of information about the conflict — the eyewitness accounts of refugees.

The tweet, which was sent out by the SOEFactCheck account on 24 November, reads: “We have received credible intelligence that TPLF [Tigray People’s LIberation Front] operatives have infiltrated refugees fleeing into Sudan to carry out missions of disinformation. We caution media entities & international organisations to thoroughly investigate & verify information they receive.”

It was subsequently retweeted by Abiy, his press secretary, Billene Aster Seyoum, and other prominent government accounts. It was then retweeted by an independent “influencer” account, with more than half a million followers.

Analysis conducted by Alexi Drew, a research associate at the King’s College London’s Policy Institute, found that unlike previous tweets by the SOEFactCheck account, this particular tweet gained significant traction. The reach and spread of it reflects a turning point in the government’s disinformation strategy, and suggests that a “quality over quantity” strategy might be working. 

Drew described this tweet as a “lynchpin” message in that it pulls together multiple strands of the narrative the government has been seeding about the conflict, in a way that connects to an existing discourse about the unreliability of information. The effect is a muddied information environment, and a general sense of suspicion of all information coming out of the conflict. 

“What they’ve managed to do is lay the groundwork to potentially undermine all accounts coming from refugees fleeing the region, by suggesting that they have ‘evidence’ or ‘credible evidence’ that the TPLF has seeded refugees with disinformation actors,” she said. Though this is in the realm of possibilités, the government has provided no evidence that this taking place.

Hours after this tweet was sent out by SOEFactCheck, it’s immediate reach was about 57 000. The reach of subsequent retweets and other mentions was well over a million and continues to grow. “This is a significant amplification ratio — higher than anything else I’ve seen during this conflict,” said Drew.

A country in conflict

This information war takes place against the backdrop of a real conflict. Fighting in Ethiopia erupted on 4 November after months of escalating tensions between the federal and Tigray regional government. Abiy sent military troops into the region in response to a TPLF attack on a federal military base. The government also issued a six-month state of emergency in the northern region, characterising the military incursion as a “law enforcement” operation, designed to uphold “justice and the rule of law”. Ethiopia rejected all calls for mediation and on 28 November, the Abiy announced “full control” of the Tigray capital, Mekele, and an end to the military offensive, yet fighting is still reported in Tigray by the time of writing.

The conflict in Ethiopia now risks deteriorating into a full-blown civil war that could draw in neighbouring states including Eritrea, whose president has long been at odds with Tigrayan leaders. Ethiopia dismisses such claims. 

The overall casualties of the conflict are not clear because of the communications blackout; in one incident, reported by Amnesty International, hundreds of civilians were killed in the town of Maikadra by Tigrians militia. This is not the only case of mass violence in Ethiopia. Incidences have been reported recently in other areas including Benishangul-Gumuz, West Wollega, the Afar and the border between the Oromo and Somali regions. 

Fears have also been raised about discrimination against Tigrayans. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has called on the government to not overstep their limits, saying that it has noted “complaints of ethnic profiling of [people of] Tigrayan origin”. Redwan Hussein, a government spokesperson, admitted that the conflict has affected the wider Tigryan population. One resident said she is afraid of speaking Tigrinya, the predominant language spoken in Tigray. “It has become a crime. I have never felt such hate my entire life”, said Genet, who agreed to speak under a pseudonym. Reports say that thousands of Tigrayans have been arrested.

Both sides of the conflict use derogatory terms to refer to each other, language that makes negotiation or future rebuilding of trust difficult. These terms include the “greedy junta”, “criminal clique”, “conflict entrepreneurs”, “fugitive”, “traitor”, “the enemy”, “fascist”, “terrorist and dictatorial junta”, “aggressors”, “dictator” and “sadist”.

Hate speech and disinformation 

“Hate speech” and fake news have served as justifications for shutting down the internet in Ethiopia before, and were used to justify a controversial law criminalising some social media activity, which was passed in Ethiopia in February. Hate speech and disinformation by the different actors do pose a significant problem to the country, and may play some role in the increasing incidences of ethnonationalist violence in regions beyond Tigray.

Pre-existing fears, which can be deeped by unverifiable rumours and uncertainty, may precipitate violence as it did in Rwanda. Independent checking might have been a protective factor — but the government’s co-opting of this practice, in combination with the communications blackout in Tigray, will only worsen the climate of fear and mistrust. 

Ethiopia is not the first government to recognise the political power of fact checking claims. In November last year, the press office for the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party changed its Twitter handle to “factcheckUK” during the debate between its party leader, Boris Johnson, and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a move that sparked widespread condemnation. The Conservative Party remained unapologetic and revived the fact checking brand a month later to celebrate Johnson’s victory.  

Also in 2019, the Mexican government hijacked the Verificado Notimex, a brand used by independent fact checking organisations designed to “debunk false news on social media as well as to fact-check dubious content published by traditional media outlets”. In the Czech Republic, a prime ministerial candidate created his own fact-checking site in 2017. Other examples abound, from Turkey’s FactCheckingTr Twitter account to India’s government-run fact checking unit.

“These actions are going to be more coordinated and more organised, especially as more and more governments are engaging with PR companies for image management,” Mugendi said. It is difficult to know who runs PR campaigns on the behalf of governments without the work of independent journalism, which has helped to expose the infamous disinformation campaigns run by Cambridge Analytica and Bell Pottinger.

“The reason they do this is because there is a narrative to control and the first thing you do is discredit anyone who has a dissenting opinion or message, [and] that seems like what this Ethiopian initiative is trying to do,” Mugendi said. “If it was truly interested in fact checking it would work with the journalists working in Ethiopia who are working to fact check information. It feels very disingenuous, very hypocritical.”

The conflict has seen its fair share of crackdown on journalism, including the international media. Several local journalists have been arrested and international journalists summoned and reprimanded. The Foreign Correspondents Association of East Africa raised its concerns in a statement issued on 30 November: “The FCAEA is also alarmed by criticism of international and Ethiopian media organisations, just for doing their jobs, on social media by Ethiopian authorities.”

This is not to say the international media has not made factual mistakes while reporting; for example, the BBC had to delete and apologise for a tweet that misquoted Abiy. These kinds of mistakes, which SOEFactCheck has accurately called out on Twitter, has issued a blanket dismissal of the international media and analysts, helping the government position themselves as the sole provider of reliable information. This is also a reminder for independent fact checkers to keep the media accountable. 

Should Twitter step in?

While it is clear that governments cannot independently fact check themselves, what’s less clear is who ought to be responsible for fact checking, particularly on social media and in complex conflict situations.

Twitter has recently taken on a more active role in terms of evaluating the credibility of information shared on its platform. Its updated policy on misleading information states that warning and context labels will be applied to tweets in three broad categories: misleading information, which include statements that have been confirmed false; disputed claims, where the truthfulness or accuracy of a claim is contested or unknown; and unverified claims, which include information that could be true or false, but which is unconfirmed at the time of sharing.

At the very least, SOEFactCheck’s tweet undermining the credibility of refugees fits the definition of an “unverified claim”, if not a “disputed” or outright “misleading” one. 

The government has provided no evidence to support this claim, and no evidence has surfaced from other sources. Twitter has not applied any label to this tweet. On 30 November, Abiy claimed that the Ethiopian refugees going to Sudan are mostly young men, and asked where the women and children were, insisting investigations needed to be done. This claim was made despite the fact that the United Nations Human Rights Council data of registered 44 682 refugees shows 45% were children and 43% were women, as of 30 November.

Similarly, when the army accused the World Health Organisation director general of supporting the TPLF, the SOEFactCheck account did not step up to provide evidence.

When we asked Twitter if they were monitoring and evaluating claims being made about Ethiopia’s conflict, a spokesperson said only that “our goal is to give people the context and tools necessary to find credible information on our service — no matter the topic or where they are seeing the tweet”. She added that Twitter’s policies are “uniform across the globe” and that they are “prioritising the removal of content where it has a clear call to action that could potentially cause real-world harm”.

While the absence of information labels confirms Twitter’s focus on disinformation in the West, it is not necessarily the case that these labels would be a good source of fact checking in the Ethiopian context. During this year’s United States presidential election, Twitter began to attach labels to some of President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of electoral fraud. Twitter has since said its efforts slowed the spread of false information. But researchers are divided as to whether this kind of fact checking is helping to build a more reliable information environment, one where fact claims are subject to evidence-based debate and independent scrutiny.

Undermining the power of fact-checking

Independent fact checking is a crucial (if imperfect) tool in the fight against disinformation and political manipulation. But its power is being eroded by governments bent on repurposing the practice as propaganda. 

While some governments and political groups continue to rely on the spreading of mass disinformation on social media (often in the form of automated “bots”), evidence from Ethiopia suggests a new, and deeply troubling strategy. Abiy’s government appears to be trying to dramatically limit the number of actors able to claim access to the truth, as well as limiting potential sources of truthful information, with the intention of spreading their messages to as large an audience as possible while maintaining control of the narrative.

“This will be the future of government propaganda, because at some level the government is trying to play a seed of doubt in any information that they don’t like”, Mugendi said. “It’s becoming less viable to shut down the internet. This is the next best thing”.

A version of this story first appeared in The Continent, the award-winning pan-African weekly newspaper. Get the latest edition here.