The Washingtonpost | Alexi Drew and Claire Wilmot | Claims about disinformation may be undermining online activism.
Nearly three months have passed since the conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began. Despite Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s assurance that the military operation ended in late November, the conflict in Tigray is far from over. U.N. officials this week cited reports that Ethiopian troops may not have the region under their command, and warned of grave food shortages, calling for the government to allow aid workers to enter the region.
On social media, pro- and anti-government groups continue to vie for control of the conflict narrative. Abiy released a statement on Feb. 2 encouraging Ethiopians to launch an offensive against the TPLF’s distortions and “lies” in the international arena. Our analysis of over 500,000 tweets related to Tigray helps explain the intensifying information conflict.
We collected and analyzed tweets between Nov. 4 and Jan. 20 to try to understand the kinds of information being circulated, and the effects of different messaging campaigns. We found that both sides are quick to accuse the other of spreading intentionally false information — though actual disinformation accounts for a surprisingly small proportion of tweets about the conflict.
Ethiopia’s conflict continues online
Knowing what’s really going on in Tigray’s conflict is difficult, given a communications blackout in much of the region. The government has also not allowed humanitarian access to areas that reportedly have experienced atrocities or are in urgent need of assistance. It is in this opaque information environment that people have taken to Twitter.
Pro-Tigray activism online
#StandWithTigray is a central source of activism for pro-Tigray campaigns. Its website shares instructions for using Twitter, along with pre-written content for followers to share. Their online presence can broadly be divided into three categories: “old” and “new” activist accounts; and accounts with opaque credentials.
“Old” activist accounts are largely based in Ethiopia, Europe and North America. Although their activism does not necessarily predate the conflict, their Twitter accounts often do. They demonstrate a high degree of digital literacy, posting lots of original content and engaging with other users.
“New” activist accounts were created throughout the conflict. We found over 3,000 such accounts between November and the end of January. These accounts demonstrate a low level of digital literacy, few followers and short-term engagement.
Accounts with opaque credentials claim expertise or positions aimed at boosting their credibility. They claim to be academics or aid workers but have little or no online presence beyond Twitter, making their credentials difficult to verify. These accounts may be problematic because they can obtain significant “reach” based on unsubstantiated claims.
Do these tweets contain disinformation and misinformation?
Our analysis showed that the majority of content produced by the #StandWithTigray campaign is digital activism, which seeks to raise international awareness about the conflict. The #StandwithTigray campaign is organized similarly to many other social justice campaigns on social media. Pre-written tweets build momentum around hashtags and connect to potential influencers like foreign officials, U.N. agencies or foreign ministries. This is a standard approach for activists, who usually don’t have the resources to employ the kinds of PR firms that many governments rely on to manage information (and disinformation) strategies.
It’s important to distinguish between disinformation, which is the intentional spread of false or misleading information, and misinformation, which is unintentional. When false claims could be read as intentional — like when TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael reported that Ethiopian forces had bombed the Tekeze dam — it’s often tough to verify information because of communications blackouts or limited physical access. Most who go on to spread that information have no means of verifying what they are sharing. Combating the spread of false information would require opening access to all areas of Tigray.
Pro-government information campaigns
The government has the advantage of being able to channel strategic messages through high-profile or official government accounts with very large followings. This means they are able to spread information widely without relying heavily on new accounts or copy-and-paste campaigns.
Pro-government online activism tends to be more responsive than proactive. The #UnityForEthiopia website, which appeared in response to #StandWithTigray, similarly includes instructions for creating Twitter accounts and has a repository of pre-written tweets. We found that new accounts created between November and January were responsible for 30 percent of all #UnityForEthiopia tweets during the two most active days of the campaign — Jan. 1 and Jan. 6.
A blurry information environment
By blocking communications and access to Tigray, the government helped create conditions where disinformation and misinformation can thrive. At the start of the military incursion into Tigray, pro-government accounts and government officials warned of a “Digital Woyane,” a TPLF-funded effort to undermine government actions in the region. In December, Ethiopia’s Information Network Security Agency claimed that the TPLF was producing over 20,000 tweets containing disinformation daily — a finding that is not supported by our data set. This narrative gained significant traction, with pro-government activists labeling almost all tweets about potential government wrongdoing as TPLF-funded disinformation.
The government’s State of Emergency Fact Check account, for example, responded to examples of misinformation spread by pro-Tigray accounts by issuing corrective statements, co-opting the work of independent fact-checkers. The government’s strategy seems to be to aimed at undermining the credibility of its critics, while sometimes combating pro-Tigray campaigns with their own campaigns.
What’s really happening in Tigray?
People come to digital activism with a wide range of interests and objectives — many want to raise awareness and advocate for solutions, while others may be trying to mislead or pursue political agendas. It’s clear that both sides in the Tigray conflict are using social media to sway global public opinion about the situation in the region, but very little independent information is emerging from Tigray at present. Currently, pro-Tigray campaigners have started spreading the hashtag #AllowAccessToTigray.
Our data so far does not support government claims that pro-Tigray Twitter campaigns are spreading significant amounts of disinformation, at least not on Twitter, the focus of our study. Pro-Tigray campaigns do produce higher volumes of tweets, which helps compete with the legitimacy and reach of government accounts. Government accounts, with their higher reach, can reframe tweets containing misinformation as intentional disinformation, undermining pro-Tigray campaigns.
Like everyone else, the government has the right to contest inaccurate claims, and may have reason to fear the spread of false information in this conflict. However, curtailing access to Tigray means that reliable evidence is scarce.
Increasingly troubling reports of humanitarian emergencies and international law violations are emerging from Tigray. As both sides seek to amplify their narratives, the importance of access and independent verification increases.
Dr. Alexi Drew is a research associate at the Policy Institute at Kings College London, an associate fellow at the Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET), and an executive manager at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative. Follow her on Twitter @CyberAlexi.
Claire Wilmot is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and a research officer at the UK Research and Innovation’s GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub. Follow her on Twitter @claireLwilmot.