US embassy reveals Eritrea manipulation of Ethiopian social media
“The Harvard study on disinformation in the narrative over Tigray also makes an interesting observation: that many pro-Ethiopia social media platforms are actually operated by Eritreans, and that a loop exists whereby PFDJ social media platforms post material purportedly from “objective” sources or individuals which is then amplified by the Eritrean Ministry of Information.”
There is a lot of disinformation on ALL sides of the conflict in Tigray. This is a fascinating analysis of the current “information war” going on by three researchers working with the “Media Manipulation Casebook,” a project of the Technology and Social Change project out of Harvard University.
One of the biggest offensives in this war was the attempt to delegitimize Amnesty International’s report on the massacre of civilians by Eritrean forces in Axum in November 2020. The “false priest” narrative was one way detractors, including Eritrea’s Information Minister, sought to obscure and deny the truth. The fact is that the Axum massacre happened; attempts to deny it are an outrageous affront to its victims. See also the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission’s preliminary findings on the massacre (link); their final report is due out on November 1.
Quoting from the report (though the whole thing is worth a read):
“Another key tactic of pro-government campaigners was to undermine witness credibility….The belief that the TPLF are posing as victims of violence to misinform the world became a central theme in pro-government discourse throughout the conflict. The most notable example of this came in the aftermath of Amnesty International’s report on the massacre of Tigrayan civilians in Axum. Pro-government accounts pushed the notion that TPLF had infiltrated the media and biased the report, gaining traction with hashtags like # FakeAxumMassacre and # AmnestyUsedTPLFSources. Although they achieved fewer overall tweets than the opposing Tigrayan hashtags sharing the content of the report, our analysis shows that pro-government accounts tend to have higher follower counts than Tigrayan accounts and are therefore able to reach a larger audience with fewer tweets.
Government supporters also shared information from state-affiliated media outlets as part of their campaigns. Information spread by government supporters was also sometimes traded up the chain and circulated by government officials and state-owned media. The Ethiopian state plays a major role in the media landscape in the country, directly owning at least a third of all broadcast media. Moreover, some media outlets that appear privately owned are actually funded by parastatals managed by regional governments, according to a report by the European Institute of Peace.
Efforts to undermine critical reporting were also employed. Following Amnesty’s Axum report, for example, the state-affiliated Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) interviewed an investigative journalist who claimed that one of Amnesty’s witnesses was named Michael Berhe, and that he had not been in Axum at all – claiming that he was really a man based in Boston pretending to be a priest. That same day, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Archdiocese of New York confirmed to FANABC—Ethiopian state TV—that Berhe was not a priest, but a man working as an interpreter in Boston. Researchers with Amnesty say they never spoke to Berhe, and that he was not one of the witnesses in the report.
Nevertheless, the “fake priest” misidentification, which began on state media made its way to Twitter, resulting in government supporters incorporating the hashtags # ShameOnAmnesty and # AmnestyUsedTPLFsources in their click-to-tweet campaign…
A blog post citing the “fake priest” narrative was even shared in a (now deleted) tweet by the official Ministry of Foreign Affairs account. Leaked government documents from early March show that Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry was instructed to explore options to have him arrested and tried for crimes against the Ethiopian state.
In reality, Berhe does work as an interpreter in Boston but he never spoke with Amnesty, nor has he ever claimed to be a priest. He became the subject of this controversy by agreeing to take part in a clearly labelled re-enactment video directed by the SWT Campaign, where volunteers read dramatized scripts based on testimony from Tigrayan victims of violence reported in the media, according to interviews with the SWT campaign organizers. Somehow, possibly because the video was released immediately before the Amnesty report and because it discussed the Axum massacre, the two were linked in government supporter circles.
Moreover, outright denials that the Axum massacre occurred were also deployed. In March 2021, major nodes in pro-government advocacy networks circulated a false news story claiming that USAID had “debunked” the Amnesty International report, and that no massacre had occurred. Shortly after, USAID Ethiopia tweeted that they “neither conducted an investigation nor sent a team to investigate the reported events that took place in Axum.” At the end of March, however, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission concluded that “more than a hundred” civilians were killed by Eritrean soldiers in Axum.
In spite of growing consensus that the massacre did in fact take place government supporters continued to promote the narrative that the report was fake, designed to distract the international community from their alleged crimes against the Amhara population in Mai Kadra, Amnesty had in fact also reported on the Mai Kadra massacre in early November, citing witnesses who blamed the TPLF massacres against Amhara civilians. In July, a detailed investigation by Reuters showed that a series of massacres were perpetrated by Tigrayan and Amhara militias in mid-November. Government supporters alleged that Amnesty’s reporting on Axum was based on interviews with Mai Kadra perpetrators. Amnesty denied these claims, and released additional information detailing how they corroborated testimony from remote interviews.
The Harvard report (see our previous post) described efforts to delegitimize Amnesty International’s report on the massacre of civilians by Eritrean forces in Axum in November 2020, including with the “false priest” narrative. The report debunks this false narrative in comprehensive detail. Information Minister Yemane, perhaps unknowingly, helped propagate these false narratives, including the “false priest” fake story, by retweeting false information.
We respectfully request that Minister Yemane, in the spirit of his tweet on September 14 that denounced Tigray conflict disinformation, retract his tweets and his February 26 “fake priest” retweet, and acknowledge that the Axum massacre was real and that AI’s report is accurate. The continued propagation of this disinformation is disrespectful to the memory of the victims and to their families.
The Harvard study on disinformation in the narrative over Tigray also makes an interesting observation: that many pro-Ethiopia social media platforms are actually operated by Eritreans, and that a loop exists whereby PFDJ social media platforms post material purportedly from “objective” sources or individuals which is then amplified by the Eritrean Ministry of Information.
“In late March, the Ethiopian government confirmed reports that Eritrean troops were involved in the conflict and were committing atrocity crimes—allegations that had been circulating since December 2020. Several high-profile Eritrean Twitter accounts joined the pro-Ethiopian government Twitter campaigns at this time. For example, # ScapegoattingEritrea became a prominent hashtag in the aftermath of human rights reports or media reports detailing Eritrean troops committing atrocities against civilians.
Several of the individuals behind these accounts have links to Eritrea’s ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), and the young wing in the diaspora. Some accounts in the Eritrean networks list shabait.com as their website in their Twitter bios, which is the website of the Eritrean Ministry of Information, and have had their work shared by the Eritrean Minister of Information. Zeleke said that the interactions with Eritrean social media campaigns are largely informal. ‘There are some issues where we have common interests and others that are not common, but there is cooperation and communication,’ he said.”
Ethiopia Tigray Amhara: Battlefield Update from 5 Fronts
Since #Ethiopia‘s armed forces are understandably reluctant to risk their lives fighting their Tigrean brothers, the government is resorting to economic measures against civilians to subdue Tigrean resistance to rule from Addis, including blocking food shipments.