Ethiopian diaspora communities organize competing click-to-tweet campaigns on Tigray conflict
By Tessa Knight
Several dedicated click-to-tweet Twitter campaigns influenced dialogue on Ethiopian social media, following the outbreak of conflict in Tigray between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November 2020.
Amid an information blackout over the conflict in the region, these campaigns, primarily coordinated by members of the Ethiopian diaspora engaging in grassroots online activism, have become an increasingly prominent feature of the information environment, as both pro- and anti-government activists vie for dominance over a definitive narrative to explain the outbreak of the conflict, particularly to international audiences.
Conflict broke out in the region after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accused the TPLF of attacking a federal base. The TPLF were one of Ethiopia’s most influential political groups until Abiy assumed power in 2018.
Tensions in the relationship between the TPLF and Abiy’s administration, which was already strained, ratcheted up after the region of Tigray defied the national government and held regional party elections in September 2020, claiming any intervention in the process would amount to a ‘declaration of war.’
After Abiy announced on social media that a line had been crossed and military action was to take place in order to ‘save the country,’ the Ethiopian government shut down internet and telecommunications access.
Much of the population is still unreachable, despite journalists and aid organizations slowly being allowed access to the area, and telecommunications services being restored to parts of Tigray.
The information blackout has made accurately documenting the crisis virtually impossible, and subsequently created an environment conducive to the spread of false information.
In this context, both supporters and critics of the Ethiopian government have taken to Twitter in an effort to shape the dominant narrative of what is going on in the conflict for an international audience, despite limited access to confirmed information.
On February 2, 2021, Abiy posted a tweet telling Ethiopians and members of the diaspora to spread accurate information about the current situation in the country, in response to disinformation allegedly being spread by TPLF supporters.
The DFRLab identified a group of click-to-tweet websites that published pre-written tweets for users to instantly tweet content about the situation in Tigray.
The campaigns were coordinated to spread narratives promoting or opposing the Ethiopian government and its handling of the conflict by encouraging social media accounts – a larger number of which were only created after the conflict started to tweet pre-written content for an international audience.
Some Twitter campaigns were planned in advanced and advertised using social media, while others appeared more reactive in nature.
Overall, the campaigns successfully used large numbers of accounts to tweet using pre-determined hashtags to ensure their narrative trended on Twitter.
The DFRLab identified five prominent click-to-tweet websites that wrote and promoted Twitter campaigns, amplifying content relating to the crisis in Tigray.
All the websites claimed to be independent and asserted that they were not connected to either the Ethiopian government or the TPLF.
Rather, the campaigns appeared to position themselves as either being against the current conflict and the Ethiopian government’s treatment of people in Tigray, or supportive of the government and anti-TPLF.
The DFRLab confirmed, through WHOIS searches and communication with the operators of the websites, that all the groups were run from the U.S. by Ethiopian expatriates. Some were also linked to registered NGOs.
While the complexity of the websites varied, they all focused on promoting narratives via hashtags and tagging NGOs, foreign government officials, and journalists in tweets, a tactic that is typical of online social justice campaigns.
Unity for Ethiopia, a pro-government and anti-TPLF website, broke down its click-to-tweet strategy into four parts: statement, mention, hashtag, and activity.
‘Statement’ included pro government comments or information about the crisis; ‘mention’ referred to tagging accounts belonging to NGOs, United Nations officials and journalists; and ‘hashtag’ referred to the specific hashtag associated with a dedicated campaign.
In part four, labelled ‘activity,’ the website explained that if a large number of accounts tweet using the hashtag #unityforethiopia, it would trend, and ‘trending is the currency on Twitter.’
The blog posted a link to a YouTube video that explained how to set up a Twitter account, how to post anti-TPLF content and how to amplify pro-government content.
The Unity for Ethiopia website included information on the importance of hashtags and activism on Twitter. (Source: unityforethiopia.net/archive)
A second blog post on the website, posted in Amharic, appealed to members of the Ethiopian diaspora to use social media to promote the Ethiopian government, indicating the Twitter campaigns were primarily directed at social media users located outside of the country.
Stand With Tigray (SWT), an anti-government website set up to oppose the conflict in the region, similarly provided information on how to create social media accounts and appealed to members of the Ethiopian diaspora to spread information about the crisis.
The site, which was founded two days after Abiy launched his offensive in Tigray by Ethiopian expatriates, is not accessible from within Ethiopia. According to the team running SWT, the website was blocked on February 25, 2021 and has registered zero visitors from Ethiopia since then.
Both Stand with Tigray and Omna Tigray, a second website opposing the conflict in the region, contained click-to-tweet content in other European languages such as French and English, appealing to the U.S. government, NGOs, civil society organizations and governments of other countries.
While the pro-government campaigns also tagged international organizations to raise awareness about their narrative, they appeared to primarily target their campaigns towards the U.S.
On March 9, 2021, another pro-government website called Global Ethiopian Advocacy Nexus (GLEAN) – whose domain registration claims to be based in California according to a WHOIS search – published a pre-written script next to the contact information for seven U.S. senators, instructing their followers to call and state their opposition to the draft resolution on Ethiopia.
GLEAN also claimed other click-to-tweet websites opposing the conflict in Tigray were spreading false information.
GLEAN accused the Stand with Tigray Twitter account of spreading misinformation. (Source: @GleanEthiopian/archive)
One of the primary characteristics of accounts that amplified pre-written tweets by click-to-tweet campaigns supporting both narratives was a distinct lack of identifying information.
In November, the Washington Post spoke with users of newly created accounts who confirmed that instructions to promote hashtags such as #StopTheWarOnTigray were circulated in WhatsApp groups.
Another pro-government supporter told Washington Post he joined Twitter after seeing pro-TPLF accounts trying to “influence international opinion,” likely by tagging international accounts in tweets opposing the conflict.
The DFRLab contacted Stand with Tigray and Unity for Ethiopia, whose pre-written tweets were retweeted by anonymous accounts that were created after conflict broke out on November 4, 2020.
In an email, the Stand with Tigray team told the DFRLab, “Most of the people that use our pre-written tweets don’t have an understanding of what Twitter even is or how to navigate it.” They explained that they worked with their community to encourage them to create Twitter accounts and to amplify each other’s tweets to “get higher hashtag exposure.”
Accounts used to amplify narratives opposing the conflict in Tigray often lacked any personal information and included a standardized profile picture. This account has since been suspended for violating Twitter rules. (Source: @Selamse89198073)
Unity for Ethiopia responded similarly, saying, “Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora are virtually not present on twitter platforms to counter TPLF misinformation campaigns,” and that the platform worked to mobilize Ethiopian citizens and diaspora members to join Twitter in order to “counter misinformation content being propagated by TPLF operatives.”
An account actively promoting content written by Unity for Ethiopia campaigns was created in February 2021, and was completely blank. (Source: @Sisayab81662637/archive)
The websites that amplified content supporting or opposing the conflict in Tigray all advertised their Twitter campaigns on social media and used pre-written tweets to create trending hashtags and connect with foreign influencers.
The most used hashtag by accounts opposing violence in the region was #TigrayGenocide. According to data collected using the social media monitoring tool Meltwater Explore, approximately 4.3 million original tweets (excluding retweets) were created using the hashtag between November 4, 2020 and April 7, 2021. These 4.3 million tweets were created by 73,277 unique Twitter accounts at an average of 59 tweets per account.
Of the 4.3 million unique tweets, 76% were original posts rather than quote tweets or replies, indicating the effectiveness of the click-to-tweet campaigns.
Even factoring retweets into the total number of tweets analyzed returned a similar result, with original tweets making up the majority of tweets using the hashtag #TigrayGenocide.
One of the most successful pro-Tigray campaigns occurred after an Amnesty International report on a massacre in the city of Axum.
The report, released on February 26, 2021, implicated Ethiopian government-allied Eritrean forces in the systematic killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians on November 28-29, 2020, in what the rights group described as crimes against humanity.
On February 26, 2021, a total of 5,850 Twitter accounts posted nearly 90,000 original tweets using the hashtag #AxumMassacre, an average of approximately 15 tweets per account, excluding retweets.
As with previous anti-conflict campaigns such as #TigrayGenocide, the majority of tweets were from click-to-tweet campaigns where users posted directly to their timelines.
Of the 5,850 accounts that posted original tweets using the hashtag, 3,842 were created between November 1, 2020 and February 26, 2021. These newly created accounts focused on amplifying narratives that opposed the conflict in the region by tweeting posts from Stand with Tigray.
Website link: https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/5436680/
In response to the #AxumMassacre hashtag campaign, pro-government accounts scrambled to coordinate a responding campaign. Primary hashtags amplified by the groups Rising Ethio and Unity for Ethiopia included #AmnestyUsedTPLFSources and #ShameOnAmnesty.
The Twitter campaign organized by pro-government website Rising Ethio focused on the narrative that the Amnesty International report included TPLF sources. (source: Rising Ethio/archive)
However, the opposing Twitter campaigns did not garner nearly as much attention as the pro-Tigray campaign using #AxumMassacre. A total of 945 twitter accounts used either the hashtag #AmnestyUsedTPLFSources or the hashtag #ShameOnAmnesty on February 26, 2020, for a total of 12,430 unique tweets, excluding retweets.
Of the 945 accounts, approximately 46 percent were created after conflict broke out on November 4, 2020. Many of the accounts created within the last four months were blank and contained no identifying information.
In a similar manner to the pro-Tigray campaigns using the hashtag #AxumMassacre, the pro-government campaigns, while not as successful, revealed that the majority of tweets on the day were posted directly to Twitter accounts via click-to-tweet websites.
Although both pro- and anti-government narratives contained a significant number of blank, newly created accounts, the DFRLab did not find any indication of automation.
The accounts amplifying pro- or anti-government content were organized and coordinated, primarily via the click-to-tweet websites, but they appeared to be operated by real people.
The click-to-tweet websites the DFRLab spoke with all indicated that Ethiopian citizens primarily used Facebook, and very few diaspora members and in-country residents had Twitter profiles.
Despite this, in-country traffic to Twitter increased significantly after November 2020. In mid-February 2021, Twitter received more visits from within Ethiopia than Facebook, according to Statcounter.
The coordinated click-to-tweet campaigns also had significant impact on which hashtags trended in Ethiopia. Hashtags such as #UnityforEthiopia, promoted by the website of the same name, as well as #TigrayGenocide and #TPLFisTheCause regularly trended on Ethiopian Twitter. The campaigns themselves were well organized, and even amplified by verified Ethiopian influencers, such as blogger Seyoum Teshome.
Blogger Seyoum Teshome regularly promoted the Rising Ethio Twitter campaigns on his verified Facebook profile. (Source: Seyoum Teshome)
Ultimately, the Ethiopian diaspora’s participation in these campaigns impacted which narratives spread on Twitter about the crisis in Tigray, despite limited access to verifiable information about the actual situation on the ground.
Tessa Knight is a Research Assistant, Southern Africa, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab). The DFRLab team in Cape Town works in partnership with Code for Africa. Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.
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