When Ethiopian federal forces and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) began fighting in November 2020, a second online front quickly opened up, with both sides trying to control the narrative.
Social media became a battleground, with the Ethiopian government and its supporters on one side and Tigrayan activists and supporters on the other. According to The Media Manipulation Casebook, each side attempted to present their version of events to an English-speaking audience. Created by the Shorenstein Center's Technology and Social Change project at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Casebook grouphas investigated information campaigns related to Tigray since the beginning of the conflict.
The Tigrayan side has largely focused on raising awareness of the conflict, while supporters of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government in Addis Ababa have sought to refute their opponents' claims. And while both made misleading or sometimes false claims, the study found that pro-government official communications and user contributions often attempted to discredit content that contradicted the federal government's narrative as disinformation.
“It is a complex case that interacts with the geopolitics of the Horn of Africa, historical trauma, activism, hate speech, disinformation, platform manipulation and propaganda, all in the midst of an ongoing civil war,” according to an investigation of The Media Manipulation Casebook.
At the start of the conflict, activists in Tigray took to Twitter and the non-profit advocacy group Stand With Tigray soon emerged. At the same time, pro-government groups such as Ethiopia's State of Emergency Fact Check attempted to counter what they saw as TPLF disinformation, often attempting to discredit local and foreign reporting.
Operating exclusively on Twitter and Facebook, later renamed Ethiopia Current Issues Fact Check (ECIFC), the group issued official-sounding directives and statements, often condemning international coverage of the war.
Some analysts VOA spoke to believe the federal government created the group. The authorities deny the claim, and government supporters see ECIFC as a necessary response to what they see as biased media coverage.
"The reports were hijacked by agents associated with the TPLF who live in different parts of the Western world," Dina Mufti, a spokeswoman for the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told VOA. “And these agents were actually the ones running these disinformation and disinformation campaigns. And they do not help the international community to see the reality on the ground”.
Deacon Yoseph Tafari, president of the Ethiopian American Civic Council, an association that bills itself as an advocate for human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia, agreed.
"Something had to be done," he told VOA, referring to what he sees as biased reporting. "In these circumstances, the government has no other means or instruments at its disposal."
The push to influence opinion online has complemented more traditional efforts over the past year, when various parties have hired lobbyists to influence US government policy and public opinion.
Among the latest deals, the Ethiopian Peace Ministry said it spent $270,000 on a six-month deal with international law firm Holland & Knight.Foreign lobbying report, a website that examines Washington's foreign lobbying industry.
The Colorado-based Ethiopian American Civic Council has hired three public affairs professionals "to help counter bipartisan criticism of the government's response to violence in Tigray."
And the Tigray Information and Communication Center hired a Washington-based policy and consulting firm, Von Batten-Montague-York, to urge "the removal of all Eritrean military personnel and militias from Tigray" and ensure access to the delivery of humanitarian aid in Tigray. reported the Politico news website. After a bill passed in the Senate, the company stopped lobbying on behalf of the center.according to reports.
The focus on influencing opinion extends to foreign media as well, with the Ethiopian federal government arguing that the TPLF dominates or distorts international reporting.
But Ethiopian journalists and analysts say what the federal government considers disinformation are legitimate reports that criticize the government or are sympathetic to the Tigrayan cause.
Abiy's administration was quick to back the ECIFC call because of what it saw as biased reporting. As ECIFC took off on social media, the Prime Minister's spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, sent out an email and tweet directing the media to the group's social media accounts."
Get the latest and fact-based information on the state of emergency and rule of law operations that the federal government FDRE is carrying out in the Tigray region,” Billene tweeted.
The latest indictment, in a statement posted on Twitter on August 11, cited reports from US-based media, including Bloomberg and TheMuere Washington Post.
"Most of the headlines and content of the stories continue to deny through silence and turn a blind eye to the role played by a terrorist organization TPLF in wreaking havoc on the country's stability," the statement said.
Local and foreign journalists covering Ethiopia told VOA that the testimonies show how concerned the Ethiopian government is with international reporting.
"It became a narrative war," Tsedale Lemma, founder and editor-in-chief of the Addis Standard, told VOA. "They are still more concerned with the narrative than the actual effects of the war."
Reports and statements from the United Nations and other international bodies also seem to support the reports criticized by the government and ECIFC.
VOA requested several interviews from ECIFC through its social media pages, but received no response.
ECFIC lists itself as a government website on its Facebook page. But the same detail does not appear on Twitter. By scanning the group's public information, VOA was unable to determine who works for the group or what its official mandate is.
However, Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Dina told VOA that the fact-checking group is not affiliated with the government.
"The group is independent. They act alone," Dina said. "I know they are doing a fantastic job."
"He is giving correct information, correct information, from Ethiopia," he continued. "I'm not interested in commenting on this group."
Disguised as a fact check
Some say the ECIFC's work illustrates a broader phenomenon in which a "fact check" itself spreads disinformation.
Aly Verjee, a senior adviser to the US Institute of Peace, said the group is "very, very conscious and very important to embrace the language of fact-checking."
“There are people who are not going to trust anything that comes from a government spokesperson. But if they see a 'fact check' attached to it, that could add an extra layer of credibility to the information," Verjee said. "It potentially devalues the idea that there is objective reporting."
Ethiopian journalist Tsedale said that despite the name, the group's intent had always been clear: to advance the federal government's narrative. “From the beginning, it has not been about fact-checking, but about countering information that the government does not believe serves its interests. He barely did any fact checking.”
VOA did not identify any self-proclaimed fact-check accounts among those supporting Tigrayan's side.
Stand With Tigray is one of the most prominent pro-Tigray groups. He has more than 36,000 followers on Twitter and 14,478 followers on Facebook. The group runs campaigns on Twitter calling on the international community to stop humanitarian crises and raising awareness.what she sees as atrocities in the region.
By comparison, CIFC has more than 84,000 followers on Twitter and 111,000 followers on Facebook.
The pro-government group appears to have a wide audience, said Claire Wilmot, co-author of The Media Manipulation Casebook report.Duel of information campaigns: the war of the narrative in Tigray.
Wilmot said that everyone is a target, particularly foreign journalists and foreigners in general, as well as Ethiopians in Ethiopia and members of the diaspora.
“The fact-check account draws its power from the pre-existing narrative that the TPLF is funding a massive online disinformation campaign that has not been supported by any evidence. It uses this disinformation narrative to undermine any and all critical reports that portray the government in a negative light,” Wilmot told VOA.
"The impact this will have on the information health in Ethiopia, on the ability of independent journalists to challenge government narratives, that's a big question."