How social media is despoiling civility in Ethiopia: Ezana Sehay

October 01, 2016 (GMN) - In his September 25, 2016 address to the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn reminded the world about the inherent contradictions of the Social Media. How it has become a double-edge sword that can be used to cut the intended object but also cut the user if he is not careful. 

He is not alone in his observation. In its Aug. 18-25 edition Time magazine’s cover story was “Why we’re losing the Internet to the Culture of Hate”.  Based on its extensive research, the magazine concluded the online media is full of individuals or groups, who are turning the web in to “a cesspool of aggression and violence”.

Moreover, Cyber Media experts admit it [social media] has become a hot bed and are worried this might have an adverse effect. They fear it eventually might led to stringent control of the internet, or worse, be subjected to total censorship. Their concern is not unwarranted; few days ago, Swiss voters [one of the most liberal societies] overwhelmingly approved a legislation that allows the country’s intelligence to conduct surveillance on online activities of cyber criminals.  

As the reader might be aware of, as of October 1, 2016 the US is going to relinquish oversight over key parts of the internet, ending the contract between the US Department of Commerce and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and numbers [ICANN], which regulates Domain Name registration for websites, handles Domain Name System [DNS] Root Zone to ensure internet users are directed to the website they intend to visit and also handles Internet Protocols.

The question that is frequently being raised is who is going to fill the void? Many of the UN member nations have proposed the control of the internet to be assumed by the International Telecommunication Union [ITU].  The ITU, in its recent, somewhat clandestine meeting, in turn has proposed a law that “could give governments… the ability to sifter through all of the internet users’ traffic… without adequate privacy safeguards”.

But the most likely successor to the US control of the internet is going to be China. In fact china is so confident it will be, it is on the verge of introducing a new system of governing the internet. As you can imagine for advocates of online freedom, the Chinese control of the cyber space is the worst case scenario. But ordinary people are not worried, not so much anyway.  Considering the destructive consequence of the social media on personal or society in general, most people view some kind of regulation as a necessary evil.

The social media menace: The rise of digital crime in general and hate crime in particular is proving to be painful especially for developing countries like Ethiopia. Although bigoted ideology has been rampant in the Diaspora Ethiopian extremist community, the people inside have remained, for the most part, immune to such propensity.

But as the country’s connectivity expands and users of social media mushroomed, it is allowing the fanatics of varying spectrum access to potential audience of millions of Ethiopians – especially the impressionable youth. Evidently these bigots across the oceans are managing to spread their message of hate with dire consequences to the nation’s stability as proven by the recent wave of protest in some parts of the country.  

The protest was spearheaded by Oromo Ethiopians opposing the Addis Ababa and surrounding Oromia towns’ master- plan as well as the general mal-administration in the state. Both are legitimate issues and both the state and federal governments have acknowledged and consequently made concessions.

Unfortunately, soon after, extremist Oromos began to exploit the temporary public discontent and marshaled their cyber warriors through the social media; sending whole spectrums of hate messages.  Before long, the peaceful protest turned violent causing unfortunate loss of life, destruction of public and private property, and burning of churches and schools etc.

As causalities mount social media channels were, of course, united with emotional reaction. But as days pass by, however, divides started to appear between caught up in posting about the events. Giving different versions of what has transpired as well as what actually did it mean, where it is leading? What is the end game?

For the extremist social media handlers the violence that transpired was exactly they were looking for, and, so was harvest time.  They started making up stories of atrocities and posted them. Doctored pictures of alleged victims were all over the net. Images of mass killing committed elsewhere, were posted, as if they took place in Oromia. In some cases photos of security officers engaged in crowed control during a concert were presented as officers beating up protesters.

Eventually the peace loving Oromo people realized they were being taken for a ride by the extreme nuts. And so relative calm surfaced in the state but I am afraid the damage was done. Sure, slowly but surely peace has come but the lives lost are forever.

Rally of hate: As the situation in Oromia began to turn to normalcy another protest flared up in another corner of the country; this time it was in Gondar in the Amhara region. The Gondar protest was shocking in many aspects. To begin with, unlike the Oromo protesters, the Gondar protesters had no justifiable question worthy of protest. What’s more it was vile, full of obscenity, uncivilized and un-Ethiopian.

Bear in mind, the Gondar protest [riot] was hatched and directed by social media from abroad. Evidently the manner in which the protesters acted was reminiscent of the Diaspora hooligans. In addition to running amok, they burned the Ethiopian flag with a star, which symbolizes unity in diversity and replace it with the old version, which to most Ethiopians is the symbol of subjugation, oppression and atrocity. Among the signs displayed was one that read “one language, one religion”. Racist chants turned out to be ubiquitous as well.

It was profoundly disturbing to witness people espousing such hatred on the open air in Ethiopia.  Such vile attitude is rife in the Diaspora extremist body politic, but never did I imagine seeing it inside the country.  The event in Gondar is anomaly but as many will attest, events like this occur far too frequently in many cities of Europe and North America.

Simultaneously the flat-earthers’ social media flame warriors went on the attack, and the outrage-prone macro-universe event kept on giving – exactly the equal of ISIS in their ability to provoke pique on a moment to moment basis. There was an abundance of easy targets for their predictable temper tantrum.

In the days following that riot, as clashes with the security forces ensued, social media backers of the rampage began to post make- believe stories. Stories of imaginary wars, heroics, victories by phantom anti-government forces were pervasive on the net. In tandem we were bombarded with graphic images of purporting to be bloodied protesters being abused by security forces; of massacres and cruelty allegedly committed by government troops.  Of course, If you take the time to do research on line, you‘re likely to discover that all their stories are tall- tells and, the images are from other conflicts unrelated to Ethiopia.

 But the great causality of such abhorrent campaign in the social media is civility.                          As we speak the Gondar philistines are violating the centuries-old very basic principle of Ethiopian civilized cohabitation. 

The perpetrators: Most of the sources of the hate campaigns in the social media directed at Ethiopians are the work of the Diaspora cyber-wasteland which are deeply sectarian and ethno-centric – who attract a core of like-minded individuals and tend to devolve in to vitriolic screeds or sophomoric insults more often than not. The news you see, hear or opinions you read on these on line media outlets are straight conspiracy theories, conjectures, fabrications, and outright lies .

Besides the obvious, who should be faulted for poisoning the Ethiopian politico-social ecosystem? Should we blame the erudite enablers of the ultraists, like the aging opportunist professors who see in chaos their last chance at power and can’t be bothered to worry about the consequence to the nation?

Or maybe we need to go back further.  Does it lie in the Ethiopian intellectual chaos of the time, the easy cynicism that claims all truth is relative, and the nihilists’ pose that choices are without risk, that nothing matters because it is all a joke anyway.

Is the Voice of America [VOA] Amharic division to blame, for sawing the seeds of tribalism – for having played about for years with the coded appeals to ethnicity that most consider open bigotry?

Should we blame the excess of identity politics in the Ethiopian society in and outside the country, the obsession with ethnicity to the exclusion of individual rights or common human value, the assertion that society is a zero-sum conflict?

Or the youth of Ethiopia for succumbing to the fanatics’ war of attrition on human reason – the insults, the craziness, the elements of errors, the literally thousands of lies, by which they [the fanatics] manifest their disdain for any of the usual standards of behavior

No question, the root cause of the deterioration of comity in the Ethiopian  political and social ambiance  is the coarsening of the culture, the dramatization of everything, the degradation of knowledge in the age of social media, where everyone with access to a computer thinks he knows all there is to know about anything.

A word to wise social media consumers: A social media platform like Facebook is a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of what is going on in the world. Yes it is an ever-updating source of information, which makes it easy to rely on the site as a highlight reel of events.

There is of course, a huge benefit to sharing and reading news stories in our social media feeds, especially for compatriots back home where the social media culture is relatively new. For most of you this might be the first time you are regularly clicking on [or at least scanning headlines of] links to news articles or YouTube video clips.

In other words it has become easy to depend on your social media circles to keep informed. But think carefully about the information you’re getting. The sheer volume of stories can provide the illusion of comprehensiveness, but that doesn’t mean your networks are a reliable source of facts.

 In many cases, social media mediums can be an echo chamber, reflecting versions of our own view back to us from our friends or likeminded people. Moreover, they also have the tendency to rapidly amplify information that is skewed or untrue, which is the case in the recent events in Ethiopia.

As much as the information itself, its source is also equally important.  So be prudent not to be victims of the trolls who peddle gloom and doom. Be particularly careful of the perpetrators of online hate amongst you.  Most of those engaged in such crime wear digital masks – a handle, screen name, or other aliases.

Anonymzing yourself online feels liberating. It is like the forth drink [or depending on how much booze it takes to get you tipsy] at a party, when you muster the courage to approach the cute girl in the house. You say and do things you never would if you were your self – or if you had to put your name to your opinions or postings.

It is worth noting, that social media also allows direct access to people much more knowledgeable than we are or experts and media outlets who regularly provide credible update and analysis of relevant issues.  Thus, it is each of us responsibility to navigate through to get the clear picture.

The point is, when it comes to important issues, such as what goes in our country, the stakes are too high to rely on social media alone for information, and this goes beyond well-meaning people misconstruing media coverage of events.

When information is uncritically consumed, we can end up with people advocating civil-war, pogroms, or people calling for “one religion, one language”, despite the fact, the nation happens to be multicultural, multilingual and at least bi-religious.

And while it’s tempting to dismiss this type of things as being “people being wrong on the internet”, those ideas could spill dangerously in to real life with physical attacks and damage to properties as it happened in Gondar and some parts of Oromia state.

To sum up: we have certain responsibility to each other to know what is actually going on in our country – or at least make sure we are not spreading or be consumers of misinformation.  It is easy to feel something is true, but it is better to know that it is.