The Complex Role of Facebook in Ethiopia’s Ethnic Violence and the Need for Better Content Moderation
In their recent analysis of social media’s impact on conflict, Crisis Group explores the complex relationship between Facebook and Ethiopia’s ethnic violence, examining both the platform’s contributions and limitations.
In December 2022, a lawsuit was filed against Meta accusing it of inadequately addressing violence-inciting content on its platform during Ethiopia’s civil war. The son of slain Ethiopian professor Meareg Amare Abrha was among those who filed the lawsuit, alleging that the company had evinced a “woeful failure to address violence on the platform” and held it responsible for the November 2021 murder of Meareg, an ethnic Tigrayan living in Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara region. His son, Abrham, said Facebook users had incited violence against his father, which led to his murder. Abrham and his fellow plaintiffs want Meta to apologise for failing to remove offending posts; contribute around $2.4 billion to funds for victims of hate on Facebook; alter its algorithm so the platform does not spread harmful content; and make its content moderation equitable across languages.
The bulk of Ethiopia’s sectarian violence can be traced to the civil war centred on the Tigray region in the country’s north, which began in November 2020 when a constitutional dispute and power struggle between Tigray’s leaders and the federal government spiralled into conflict. That conflict found Tigray also fighting neighbouring Amhara (with which it has been locked in a long-running territorial dispute) and formed the backdrop for the attack on Meareg. A November 2022 peace deal between the federal government and the Tigray region’s ruling party (the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF) has brought a welcome respite from the violence in and around Tigray. But peace in the north remains fragile, and Ethiopia continues to face violence and instability elsewhere – particularly in Oromia, where the government is trying to crush an ethno-nationalist insurgency.
Meta has a history of underinvesting in moderating content in multilingual Ethiopia, just as it did in Myanmar, where the platform was criticised for the role it played prior to the state’s expulsion of Rohingya Muslims in 2017. While these platforms can be useful in conflict situations – for example, by helping share information that can protect civilians and document human rights abuses – they can also be an amplifier and accelerator of already existing tensions and a space to carry out targeted attacks on marginalised groups including women and girls.
Meta can and should do more to address incendiary content on its platform, including through improved language capacities, larger moderation teams, more research transparency and algorithmic changes that do more to demote potentially inflammatory content. However, the issue requires more broader solutions. Ethiopia needs a healthy, independent media – something successive Ethiopian governments have impeded. the Ethiopian government must commit to supporting a free press and avoiding criminalization of dissent. Without it, Meta will struggle to verify facts and misinformation.