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Is Facebook paving the way for a dictator in Ethiopia?

ORPRBy Oromo Protests Organisation


Why Facebook Should Care about Ethiopia!

Following in the footsteps of Aung San Suu Kyi, another Nobel laureate — Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed — is using his political capital to remain in power and exact violence towards minorities, majorities of every federal region in Ethiopia against those who do not support his new party or aligned with their agenda. For most users in Ethiopia, Facebook products are the primary platforms through which people access online information. Just like many developing nations where Facebook users are exploding due to access to 3g and 4g networks. Facebook’s policy platform should offer the same level of attention and care to the African market as it does the Western/Asian markets, since this is the continent from which Facebook will gain its next 1B users over the coming 30 years. In Ethiopia alone, Facebook products are set to grow another 300% over the next 5–10 years; that is 75 million people. Unfortunately, Ethiopian activists are currently being stripped of their access to this important platform, with accounts being closed by automated systems. If this continues, Ethiopia’s democratic transition is expected to be delayed, unless another platform can be found to facilitate human connection more responsibly and transparently. The persistent shutting down of progressive voices, movements, and leaders in Ethiopia will have lasting damage on the world, something that cannot be easily fixed with few ads. In this context, Facebook’s actions have the potential to to make the platform into a proponent of authoritarianism.

Automating the Destruction of Free Speech is Dangerous

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We believe the use of automation tools in closing user accounts without an open review process for activist profiles is a big and present problem for Oromo activists. Almost all Oromo rights activists lack verified user accounts even when they have large followings for our market. Much like Tsegaye Ararsa who recently experienced the closure of his account to what we assume is automated closures since not one of his posts is racist. We are making bold assertions that it is automated tooling that caused the closure due to attacks by organized right-wing groups. If Facebook needs community partners to assist in the development of the Oromo language market we are here to help!

These closures are leading to many people losing access to valuable information about health-related information, government (federal, state, military), killings of Oromo people, what is happening across Oromia and Ethiopian as a whole, and protest movements across Oromia for justice (most recently for Hacaaluu Hundeessaa). We recognize this was an extremely well-organized campaigns by rightwing ‘Ethiopian’ groups, organization, individuals and networks and we are here to help shine some light on some of the attempts to end the lives of Oromo human rights activist, politicians, and leaders [in real life by (threats of) assassination or online] using telegram groups to conduct mass reporting or campaigns and some time right on Facebook or right on FB some time.

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Facebook Limitations on Policy Enforcement / Reporting in Ethiopia and Product Resolution Ideas

There are right-wing groups that are now aligned with the government flagging and reporting in mass content they don’t even understand. These efforts are led by specific groups/people who are actively raising racial tensions between Ethiopian regions and ethnic groups. There should be automated filtering tools for mass reporting for at least spam/incitement/hateful categories of Facebook’s reporting tool by the primary and secondary languages spoken by the reporting users. We are afraid more urban Amharic speaking classes, groups, and movements might use the reporting tools in bad faith because of one-off translations made by media personalities like Yoni Magna and Abebe Gellaw defame another community activist on likely Telegram but also Facebook, Twitter, IG, youtube, or WhatsApp. We do not want Facebook to become just another method of reactionary communities on Facebook to report otherwise harmless content for users of another language they do not speak, we want Facebook to have as many opposing voices as possible as long as it is done in a way that does not attack someone’s race, gender, disability, ect.

There are a lot of groups but these people/organizations are the most problematic:

  1. Yoni Magna [the most problematic account since he explicitly sponsors terrorist acts against social/political figures]. His public accounts are closed but there are still many pages sharing racist commentary towards all Ethiopian groups. Calling them what amounts to n-word in American English. He has consistently made threats to kill both Oromo political leaders, even the recently assassinated Hacaaluu Hundeessaa himself. Not to mention, he also threatened to assassinate Tsegaye Ararsa, a commonly target of the right-wing parties in Ethiopia for his pro-federalism advocacy.
  2. Abebe Gellaw: Regularly takes the sad death Amhara person reported in media and reports it as an Amhara genocide happening in Oromia, ET. We suspect these accounts are usually right-wing or government-sponsored counterintelligence/incitement campaigns to justify shutting down the media and the internet (we will have articles on this in the coming weeks) but they are some groups
  3. Some of the accounts that are more or less following Abebe Gellaw ideological lead in inciting racial tensions using more profane/racist language to describe other ethnic groups and denigrating non-Amharic speaking people in a way that chips at the social fabric of Ethiopia. These accounts are as follows: Natnael MekonnenEthio 360 MediaReyot — ርዕዮትEthiopianDJ, to name a few… all their deleted racist posts should be made public so we can see them in the light for who they are.
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This may be one of the most recent large misinformation campaigns running right now is the against OMN fundraising in Facebook. [Facebook LINK]

Great Community Guidelines But Where is The Oromo Translation!

Reading the Facebook guidelines will make you think these guidelines will build an amazing community online that can transcend many borders, but recently what has been brought to our attention in the Ethiopian market is mass efforts to deplatform human rights activists and media organizations fighting to tell stories about the Oromo peoples struggle for basic human rights and many other regional groups facing the same problem like Souther/ Sidamo/ Tigray/ Amhara/ Somali State civic leaders and activists that do not agree with the narrative of Abiy administration or his recent anti-federalist audience.

Then there is the obvious problem of judging people by rules written using English they cannot yet understand. The irony is, the main reasons behind the ethnic-nationalist struggles against the Ethiopian state in the 20th century that led to the falls of successive Ethiopian governments and the Eritrean secessionist movement was just that. The fact that there was a small minority dictating writing laws in a language foreign to the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia, and forbidding the development and use of local languages. To highlight this, the Oromo language itself did not have an official writing system until the Oromo Liberation Front made it official during the transitional period in 1991 after the fall of the communist dictatorship Ethiopia in an attempt to create a more inclusive society.

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Oromo Civic Organizations Can Help Fill In the CHASM in Language Barriers

We understand Facebook might not have the resources for small regional markets like Ethiopia so we are trying to offer an olive branch to some of your internal teams to help, build and maintain the infrastructure to advance a responsible digital community. We read the community guidelines and we know and appreciate the level of effort and seriousness that went to building policies to instrumental public utility for the long term development of democracies worldwide. Facebook is the lifeline of information for a lot of fledgling democracies like Ethiopia and it’s community’s progress when it isn’t co-opted by right-wing groups/ ‘nationalist’ groups on the platform. These right-wing groups thrive on telegram, share, and advise one another on how to mass report content and accounts. With state-sanctioned support for these groups in their PR campaign against Oromo civic leaders and organizations, we don’t even know how far-reaching the damage has been so far.

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Why Was Tsegaye Ararsa’s Account Closed on Facebook?
We hope Facebook can open Tsegaye Ararsa’s Facebook account and page so we can build a better model forward for African communities engaging the Facebook platform for the first time. The security risk of one activist losing access to their Facebook account to bad actors and all their activist group members being potential targets of mass reporting by militant ‘nationalists’ is driving a lot of people to distrust either Facebook teams that are supposed handle this professionally or the automated tools that are likely handling this are failing to meet the need of its’ service.

Avaaz recently campaigned on behalf of Tsegaye Ararsa for Facebook to open his page. [AVAAZ LINK] We do not think reopening his page is enough, he needs to be blue verified in order to be impervious to these attacks if it comes up again. We have a database of Oromo human rights activists that we hope with the help of Facebook we can get blue verified on all platforms. Here is a recent interview of him on Kello Media’s youtube page to get a sense of the kind of content he regularly posts for the Oromo market. [LINK]

We have reached out to Facebook on this matter and we will provide an update accordingly and, we can get some closures on why did this closure occured right on the eve of Haacaaluu’s assassination? Is Facebook acting in concert with the Ethiopian government instead of human rights activists? Or do Oromo lives just not matter at the company? This has been by far the most devastating week for Facebook’s reputation for the underrepresented groups in Ethiopia.

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About Whispers from the North

Whispers from the North is an online platform that appreciates the ecological, cultural and socio-economic diversities of Northern Kenya. We also acknowledge that the lives of the communities of northern Kenya has been shaped by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors which have led to complex challenge that calls for a multifaceted approach.

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