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IN THE MIDDLE

Twitter and Facebook are getting caught up in Ethiopia’s conflict

People holding a flag stand in front of others in security uniform.
Reuters/Tiksa Negeri
Ethiopian police stand guard during a pro-government rally in Addis Ababa.
  • Carlos Mureithi
By Carlos Mureithi

East Africa correspondent

Published

Twitter has temporarily disabled its Trends feature in Ethiopia in the latest case of a social media network becoming involved in the growing crisis in the Horn of Africa country.

On Nov. 6, the social media service announced it has suspended Trends in Ethiopia. “We’re monitoring the situation in Ethiopia and are focused on protecting the safety of the conversation on Twitter,” the social media service said. “Inciting violence or dehumanizing people is against our rules.”

Removing Trends “is in essence an admission of guilt,” says Odanga Madung, a fellow at the Mozilla Foundation who in a recent co-authored report talked about the risks that come with the feature. “It means that they recognize that it is used consistently for harm, and that their algorithm is in some ways complicit in amplifying that harm.”

Twitter’s move comes days after  Facebook removed a post from the country’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, for violating its policies against inciting violence after he asked citizens to take up arms against rebel fighters.

There’s conflict between Tigrayan forces and the national military

Ethiopia is in the midst of an escalating conflict in which forces from the northern Tigray region are clashing with the national military. The year-long crisis has led to the deaths of hundreds of people and displacement of thousands.

On Tuesday, the government declared a six-month state of emergency after fighters from the Tigray region said they had captured two strategic towns and threatened to enter the country’s capital, Addis Ababa.

How social media networks will control content in Africa

In its announcement, Twitter said it hopes its Trends measure “will reduce the risks of coordination that could incite violence or cause harm” in Ethiopia.

The recent moves by the social media platforms give insight into how social media networks will control what should appear on them and what shouldn’t in the continent during sensitive times, as they wrestle with moderation challenges and campaigns targeting public discourse in the region.

In June, Twitter deleted a tweet by Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, appearing to threaten violence against a secessionist group. The government then suspended the social networking site indefinitely.

More recently, Twitter has come under scrutiny in the continent over disinformation allegations. Two reports by the Mozilla Foundation have found coordinated disinformation campaigns on the platform that are meant to sway public opinion.

One found a “disinformation-for-hire” industry promoting a plan for constitutional change while undermining Kenyan civil society. The other found a campaign supporting the country’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, while criticizing the release of the Pandora papers, in which his family is implicated. In reaction to both cases, Twitter suspended hundreds of accounts that participated in the disinformation campaigns.

Twitter is an important platform for public discourse in Africa

Although used by a small fraction of the population, Twitter is an important platform for public discourse on the continent. But its Trends feature, which ranks popular topics that have been tweeted through an algorithm, is susceptible to manipulation through inauthentic or manufactured tweets. The Mozilla Foundation reports found that Twitter’s Trends algorithm amplified the campaigns on the platform.

In the “disinformation-for-hire” report, Madung and his co-author, Brian Obilo, suggest that that Twitter’s moderation team should pay close attention to its Trends feature and edit it out whenever a trending topic is seen to harbor malicious content.

Madung tells Quartz he welcomes Twitter’s decision to suspend Trends in Ethiopia, saying that it will reduce a huge amount of disinformation on the platform. However, he calls for the social networking service to improve the feature’s algorithm to contextualize information, “so that the reason that you’re ‘untrending’ this thing in the first place, doesn’t have to happen again.”

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