Abel Wabella, an Ethiopian blogger and author, and founder of the fact-checking website Addis Zeybe, shares the challenges of fighting misinformation in a multilingual country like Ethiopia.
Addis Zeybe is a digital platform that shares articles and opinion pieces aimed at a primarily younger audience while striving “to present writings that are results of critical thinking, investigation and in-depth conversations.” Founded by the Ethiopian blogger and author Abel Wabella, one of its main activities currently is fact-checking.
DW Akademie: Looking back, how has the information landscape changed in Ethiopia?
Abel Wabella: In the past there was great oppression. Because of that, the media space was very narrow and most of the media outlets were closed. Many journalists were in prison or somewhere in exile. But for the last one and half a years, following political reform, the government has managed to open up the media space and ways of getting a license and registration are much better. But because of the repression in the past, media organizations don't have enough resources and the media landscape is overly cautious.
How important is the internet, and social media in particular, for the current landscape?
In other countries, the mainstream media has many resources, and is highly established and organized. So, when internet technology arrived, there was money, there were resources. But in our case, when the digital revolution came we didn’t have strong mainstream media. So, it’s hard to overstate the impact of social media and the internet in Ethiopia. Even after liberalization, the mainstream media hasn’t managed to catch up; all the breaking news is on the internet.
Do you see negative effects in the context of mis- and disinformation, and what is special about Ethiopia in that context?
After things opened up there were many different groups, so the government lost its monopoly on violence and the sharing of information. Now we have different, politically antagonistic, powerful actors and everyone is competing in both the political space and the media space. Because of this, the level of mis- and disinformation in Ethiopia is really high, and the government is engaging in it too. The New York Times recently reported that Ethiopia is one of the countries that misinforms its own citizens. Political groups have social media accounts, so they can do whatever they want, and also the diaspora community have broad internet access so they can publish what they want. The situation in Ethiopia is really worrisome. The mainstream media doesn't have the resources, the capacity or the skills to respond to disinformation, fake news and so on.
Does that mean officials and government entities are the main sources of mis- and disinformation?
One of the main sources. Because other groups are also as powerful as the government. The government itself is engaged in disinforming the public. For example, whenever there’s an incident in certain parts of the country, rather than telling you the facts, the government will try to minimize the damage by perhaps reducing the number of casualties, or manipulating the reason behind the conflict. They do this sort of thing all the time.
So would you say the media is not critical toward the government, and mainly reports whatever government spokespeople say?
Yes, most of the time. Now in the past, the strategy the government was using was to simply silence the media. They’d make arrests, or close media outlets. But this new government has stopped doing that. There is some sort of mechanism to compete within the information-sharing ecosystem. So they devise a media strategy. They are very aggressive, flooding social media and mainstream media outlets with information, and they also have many affiliated media organizations. So they act aggressively in giving information, but the flow is one way. The other surviving mainstream media outlets mimicked what the government outlets were saying in the past, so in most things the government is not challenged. The fact is that most fall in line with whatever they publish.
Do you have an example of misinformation coming from the government?
I have lots of examples. For example, we can take the case of the Green Legacy, the project of the prime minister. It was a good initiative. The aim was to plant around 300 million trees across the country. And out of the blue – we know our tree-planting capacity – they said that we had planted over 350 million, and that this was a first and had been registered in the Guinness Book of Records. Well, it wasn’t registered in the Guinness Book. And also the number is highly… it’s beyond bias, it's total fabrication. I’d say perhaps they planted a few million. Rather than challenging the government with what we know – in other words, how many tree-growing initiatives we have, what the capacity of each of these establishments is, and that if you add up all these things, you won’t get 350 million trees – the media, other media outlets were repeating what the government was saying, including international media such as Aljazeera and the BBC. They were serving as tools of disinformation.
Do you think that social media users and internet users in the country are unaware that the information is false, or do you think that they’re sharing information they know is untrue?
Ethiopia has a very high illiteracy rate. And media literacy is almost zero. Even the educated are functionally illiterate in how they consume media content. So they don’t cross-check. They don’t analyze, could that happen. Most people consume what is available on the internet as fact. Media illiteracy is a real challenge.
Thinking of solutions or ways to mitigate this, what would you propose and what would you do?
We need an ecosystem solution, because the problem is huge. Everyone should play a part in tackling it. First of all, we have to engage in media literacy campaigns that teach the general public about how to use social media, what is news, what is the intent of the people who produce a story or an image. In Ethiopia, the number of fake images is really high on social media, which is a big problem as you need lots of resources to verify each image. We thought, rather than checking the image ourselves, wouldn’t it be better to teach the public how they can verify images and identify fakes? So we produced an article in Amharic and in English, and published it on social media platforms. Everyone was happy because now when they see an image they don’t trust, they can take it to the reverse Google images search or they can easily check by themselves.
Is the situation in Ethiopia made more difficult due to its many ethnicities and languages? What are the special challenges for this country?
Yes, it's really difficult now, as we have this ethnic divide. In the past, everyone could speak Amharic. It used to be much easier to get information from the public, or to give information to the public. But now the youngsters don't understand Amharic. Endorsers are producing content in Afar, Oromo, Somali, in other languages. So you don't know what's happening in these small circles. I think it’s hugely problematic because they have politically organized groups as their base. This will be a major obstacle when it comes to nation building and the flow of information. Better platforms could solve these problems by producing multilingual content. If you manage to tackle this language barrier, then you can get to the heart of the people.
What kind of action do you expect from Facebook, YouTube and other platforms?
These social media platforms should do something with their algorithms, so that their algorithms promote good content. They should work with fact-checking organizations. But currently they seem quite happy with the way things are. I have been in touch with Facebook several times to try and get a trusted partnership with them. They seem to have an interest, but say they cannot predict when they might be coming here most of the time. But they are selling our content, so they should aggressively work in each country and devise a social contract specific to each organization. The number of moderators that Facebook has for content in Amharic, for example, is not enough. So if you report something, they don’t respond automatically. There has to be some sort of mechanism.
Also, governments need to make these platforms accountable. I know in Europe, if Facebook fails to remove hateful content within 24 hours, Facebook can be taken to court. So let’s have solutions from government. These platforms could also work with local projects to tackle the problem.
Ethiopia recently passed a controversial law aimed at curbing hate speech. Do you think such regulations are the right way to deal with this problem?
As a person who has been strangled by such laws, whilst I was in fact a conscientious citizen, I feel this new proclamation will simply target people who have different opinions to the government. I am not comfortable having that kind of proclamation. Perhaps governments and media development organizations in other countries could help the people here, support local initiatives in social media to tackle the problem, rather than passing such laws.