In September 2021, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia attracted global condemnation due to his military’s blockade of Tigray and amid reports of large-scale ethnic cleansing, murder, and rape by his forces. Meanwhile, Meta, formerly Facebook, quietly hired Helen Yosef Hailu, Abiy Ahmed’s former deputy press secretary, as its Public Policy Manager for East Africa.
Facebook’s Role in Ethiopia
This appointment occurred as the platform was becoming the premier source of firsthand information on the war for millions of Ethiopians. Both government forces and rebel groups exploited the platform to rally their bases, often employing genocidal and inflammatory rhetoric. The trouble was, interaction on Facebook mostly occurred within like-minded circles, and inter-ideological exchanges were typically contentious. These online divisions mirrored Ethiopia’s deep-seated political rifts, which seemed to only deepen over time.
Under normal circumstances, Facebook’s approach to moderating Ethiopian content would require utmost caution. However, the Tigray War amplified Facebook’s importance in Ethiopia’s political environment, making the appointment of a former staff member of the controversial Prime Minister to influence policy appear, at best, irresponsible and, at worst, indicative of a more sinister agenda.
Moderation and Partiality Concerns
Consider the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and Fano. Both claim legitimate causes but have been accused of extensive human rights abuses. However, a month after Helen’s appointment, only the OLA was included in Facebook’s “Dangerous Organizations” list. No accusations against the OLA have been substantiated, unlike Fano, which has been directly implicated in severe crimes. Note that, during this time, the Abiy administration was significantly dependent on Fano as federal forces were still in the process of restructuring and reforming following their defeat within Tigray. Keep in mind also that Facebook was an important communication and fundraising tool for Fano. The question emerges—did Facebook’s decisions pertaining to Fano take a different turn due to Helen’s prior associations? Especially since internal documents show Facebook was considering labeling Fano as a “Dangerous Organization” in the months leading up to Helen’s appointment.
The targeting of opposition media like Kello Media, which has experienced routine suspensions and permanent shutdowns of staff accounts post Helen’s appointment, stands out as a conspicuous example of Facebook’s policies leaning towards the government’s narrative. This is particularly significant as Kello Media had broadcasted a documentary implicating government officials and challenging the official narrative regarding the murder of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, leading to public outrage and the eventual arrest of the step-daughter of a prominent federal security official. The systematic targeting of Kello Media and its associates, more than other opposition media, suppresses contrarian viewpoints and creates an ecosystem of fear and suppression, allowing only narratives aligning with government interests to prevail.
Moreover, the murder of Professor Meareg Amare in November of 2021, following a relentless Facebook doxxing campaign led by pro-government pages, raises yet another pressing question—why is Facebook’s approach towards content from government-aligned entities seemingly softer? Professor Meareg’s son, Abrham Meareg, is currently pursuing legal action against Facebook, alleging negligence on the part of the platform. He contends that Facebook failed to act promptly and adequately to multiple reports and appeals to remove the harmful posts targeting his father. This inaction allowed the doxxing campaign to intensify and eventually culminate in the tragic and untimely demise of Professor Meareg. The lack of response and resolution in this case exemplifies Facebook’s potentially biased and detrimental approach in dealing with reported content that aligns with government interests.
Navigating the intricate and multifaceted political landscape of Ethiopia is undoubtedly a formidable challenge for a US-based company, especially when the nation is grappling with the repercussions of numerous ongoing conflicts. The appointment of an individual such as Helen, whose very recent job was crafting and promoting pro-government narratives, coupled with evident biases in her online activities towards the embattled Prime Minister, does little to inspire confidence in the impartiality of the platform’s moderation policies. In a volatile and politically intricate environment like Ethiopia, it is paramount that Facebook’s policies are shaped with insights and contributions from a diverse array of perspectives, spanning the entire political spectrum.
Finding a truly politically neutral and objective Ethiopian seems a near-impossible task in the present climate—more so than ever before. Given the polarization, what safeguards does Facebook employ to ensure that its moderation policies remain untainted by partisan influences and don’t morph into instruments of repression? Relying solely on any single individual or self-proclaimed “human rights” entity, irrespective of their qualifications, to offer nuanced and unbiased perspectives is perilous. The tumult and fervor stemming from five years of warfare have pushed even the seemingly most impartial Ethiopians towards extreme polarities.
In conclusion, the apparent misalignment of Meta’s policies in Ethiopia warrants immediate reflection and rectification. The flourishing of democracy necessitates the harmonious coexistence of diverse voices. It is imperative that Meta swiftly reaffirms its dedication to impartiality and inclusivity before the consequences become irreversible.
The perspectives expressed in this opinion piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Abay Times. We value a diversity of viewpoints and invite our readers to submit their own opinion pieces or responses to email@example.com for consideration for publication.