Op-Ed: The Rise of Fake News in Ethiopia

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Facebook, the largest social media network in the world, has surpassed two billion users this year since its launch on February 4, 2004. What started as a college networking platform over the years, grew exponentially and ended up disrupting our way of communication and information consumption. Its user-friendly platform has allowed it to become the most prominent social media platform in the world, despite similar efforts by companies such as Google, who failed to translate their success in search engine algorithms to social network success.

For quite some time, the influence of Facebook in Ethiopia has been ignored mainly because of discouraging numbers related to the country’s internet penetration rate. When Facebook was launched in 2004, internet penetration in Ethiopia was just 0.2%; and even in 2012, that figure only rose to a mere  2%. However, internet penetration figures have significantly risen over the last five years for Ethiopia, reaching 15%, in addition to 4.5 million Facebook users.

The introduction of Facebook in Ethiopia has presented several opportunities as well as challenges. Despite Ethiopia’s tight control and regulation of mainstream media, low internet penetration, and an adult literacy rate of barely 50% (UNESCO), the country has seen nearly 4.5 million of its citizens have access to a global platform that allows them to share their thoughts and ideas across the world with such ease. However, due to many factors – including, again, low literacy rates, laws that thwart efforts of true free speech, and a lack of transparency and responsible journalism throughout the country’s media outlets – the country has created the perfect environment for so-called “fake news.”

The ease of use of Facebook’s (and other social media) platform has allowed for the rise of fake celebrity profiles, news websites, and false reporting. This not only provides a disservice to local and global communities in search of credible Ethiopian news sources, but also presents a challenge in engaging a population that has come to distrust local media.

“Fake-book” Pages and Profiles

Just a few weeks ago, artist Henok Wondimu made a YouTube video pleading to his fan base, denouncing any news that was being released on Facebook under his name, and confirming his official page. Henok is not the only artist to make such announcement – artists such as Helen Bedelu, Helen Berhe, and Etsehiwot shared their concerns regarding false social media pages made in their name during several radio and TV interviews.

Unlike the trend in the West, Ethiopian artists and athletes are known to keep a relatively low profile about their lives, which can be one possible explanation in why so many local personalities have little to no presence on social media. This is further compounded by the general lack of understanding about the power of social media and why it is important to own your online brand and presence.

Another recent example includes Olympic gold medalist long-distance runner, Haile Gebrselassie, who was forced to publish an advertisement in The Reporter, stating he doesn’t acknowledge any social media account under his name, (though, it is unclear if this verified Facebook page is maintained by his management team or not).

A quick search of the most popular celebrity Facebook pages in Ethiopia shows that only nine have more than 100,000 followers, with only five of those pages having been officially verified. In addition, it has been recently discovered that many fake celebrity profiles and pages are being used by several video entertainment-type websites that monetize on clickbait – which, in itself, is leads to an entirely separate conversation regarding the challenges of protecting digital intellectual property in Ethiopia.

Social Media & Politics

In addition to managing an individual’s or company’s image, the role of Facebook in steering public agenda is undeniable – for example, several scholars have debated the role social media played during Arab spring.

According to the October 30 article from The New York Times, Russia – with the intent to “sow discord” among Americans – reached over 126 million Americans through social media posts (on Facebook alone), during the 2016 U.S. election, possibly influencing the outcome. As a result, it is important to acknowledge the power of influence that social media has with regards to news consumption, shaping an individual’s political ideology, and public opinion – particularly as it provides quick and easy to consume soundbites and visuals for the masses.

According to Addis Insight’s research, the only Ethiopian politician that has a verified Facebook page is World Health Organization Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, (former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Health), and activist Jawar Mohammed. The lack of politicians’ presence on social media has created a window of opportunity for the creation of several fake accounts under their name. Resulting posts made under false accounts are generally hateful, hostile, and irresponsible, and have the potential to trigger violent unrest. Such examples are posts from the fake account created under the name of Somali Regional President Abdi Mohamoud Omar, (official account here).

The passing of the Ethiopia Computer Crime Proclamation Law in 2016 discourages creators of false public personality social media accounts from using their own real account. In return, fake accounts have become a safe haven for anyone who desires to express their political opinion, without fear of retaliation. It has also resulted in the arrest of opposition political figures such as Yonatan Tesfaye, who was arrested and charged for his Facebook posts.

Facebook’s Bias

Just like any media outlet, Facebook is not free from bias. For example, the social media platform has disabled its Profile Verification submission form for celebrities, media outlets, and popular figures for countries such as Ethiopia. This has left many personalities in developing countries with no option but to solicit support from their fan base on mainstream media, in order to receive their due recognition on Facebook. In addition, Facebook’s support system is very complex for ordinary non-tech users and also discourages users from contacting the company directly.  

Solution

In a country where online presence of celebrities, government officials, and other personalities still remains relatively low, it is critical to be mindful of the stories we read, watch, and share – even in times when we are unable to fact-check the story. Furthermore, public figures, in fact, have a responsibility to be active on social media (whether personally, or through management). Besides providing minutiae of their daily activities, owning one’s own online presence establishes the credibility and legitimacy for that individual/company, helping to create a culture of trust, transparency, and accountability, in an age where information overload can dilute and distract from sincere intentions to inform the public and tell stories.

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