One of the defining features of the War on Tigray has become the struggle to control the narrative via social media. From the very outset, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared the war on his Facebook page on 4 November 2020. Following the declaration of the war, Tigrayans and friends of Tigray across the world mobilized online around an anti-war agenda. The Ethiopian government, which in the last three years had cultivated official government social media accounts with tens of thousands of followers, responded vigorously. It maintained a complete communication blackout in Tigray while at the same time co-opting the entire apparatus of the state, including government media and diplomatic missions, to establish narrative dominance. In the first few weeks of the war, these efforts focused primarily on promoting the government line that the war was simply a “law enforcement operation” intended to capture named Tigrayan leaders. The government’s efforts have since evolved to employing largely four tactics: disinformation, intimidation, demonization, and gaslighting.
Disinformation is the most common tactic used by the Ethiopian government from the start of the war. While it became immediately obvious to all impartial observers that an “operation” which involved drone warfare and heavy artillery could be anything less than a devastating war, the Ethiopian government, to this day, continues to push its narrative that it is undertaking a “law enforcement operation.” The Ethiopian government went as far as launching a dedicated social media platform in the form of the State of Emergency Fact Check [SoE Fact Check], which sought to co-opt the media term ‘Fact Check’ for propaganda purposes. On 12 November 2020, the SoE Fact check, denied the involvement of Eritrean troops by repeating the pre-emptive lie that TPLF had manufactured Eritrean military uniforms at the Almeda Textile Factory in Adwa, Tigray in an effort to dress its own fighters in Eritrean military uniform and mislead the public. On 28 November 2020, the same day as the Axum Massacre, the SoE Fact Check restated the government line that Ethiopia is undertaking a “law enforcement operation” and reassured readers that the operation “will come to an end soon.” In the same ‘fact check,’ the government reiterated the Prime Minister’s now infamous claim that “no civilians died” in the operation by stating civilians “received maximum protection” during the “law enforcement operation.”
For any astute observer of the war, the Prime Minister’s “Mission Accomplished” claim on 28 November 2020 would have seemed far-fetched. However, supporters and officials, both higher-rung and lower-rung, of the Prime Minister’s Prosperity Party took to Twitter to create the impression that the “law enforcement operation” had been completed. According to them, Ethiopia had prevailed by uprooting the “plague” that had afflicted it and it was on the road to peace, prosperity, and fraternity. Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn even went as far as congratulating the National Defense Force for “liberating” the people of Tigray and the people of Tigray for said “liberation.”
Propaganda efforts from the State of Emergency Fact Check and other accounts did not suffice to quell the negative coverage engendered by the continuous reports of extreme brutality, mainly coming from Tigrayan refugees who had fled into Sudan. At this stage, the Ethiopian government went on the defensive and began to push its supporters to take to social media to counter the news coming out of Tigray with positive “messaging.” Using #EthiopiaPrevails and #RisingEthiopia, this campaign sought to create the impression that there was “nothing to see here” and that Ethiopia had started rebuilding Tigray. Given the obvious reality that the conflict was not only ongoing but that it was attended by increasingly troubling news of civilian massacres, destruction of civilian infrastructure, and looting, however, the #EthiopiaPrevails and #RisingEthiopia campaigns were not able to gain much traction. The Ethiopian government could also not escape what it did not want the most: international attention. In fact, it resented it to such an extent that it upped its social media tactics to include intimidation and demonization, spearheaded by government officials.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister continued with his purposeful, but somewhat pointless, edits of the accounts of conversations with foreign leaders, and Ethiopian state run media, ministries and diplomats have continued to amplify disinformation campaigns. As can be seen in the examples below, the Prime Minister’s tweets about meetings with the Prime Minister of the Netherlands and the Secretary of State of the United States both leave out their concerns about humanitarian access in Tigray and focus on the generic messages about continuing bi-lateral relationships. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a now deleted Tweet, amplified an article that dismissed Amnesty’s report on the Axum Massacre as a “barrage of misinformation” and called for intimidation of the Tigrayan diaspora community by explicitly stating that “it’s time to make their secret army in the diaspora community know what it’s like to be afraid.”
The state-run Ethiopian Press Agency recently, referenced a quote by a fake Twitter account that poses as a former UN diplomat and criticizes U.S. ‘interference’ in Ethiopian affairs. The fake account has since changed its avatar multiple times with the counterfeit photos used for the avatar ranging from an AI-generated face to a photo of António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations. On 15 March 2021, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Twitter account quoted a statement by the Ministry of Peace claiming that 75% of hospitals in Tigray are operational, seemingly anticipating and trying to contradict a Médecins Sans Frontières report from the same day stating that barely 1 in 10 health facilities in Tigray was operational due to deliberate and widespread attacks on healthcare and implicating Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers for hindering medical care. Five days later, in a 20 March 2021 Tweet, Fitsum Arega – the Ambassador of Ethiopia to the United States, misrepresented MSF’s report by misleadingly claiming that MSF had attributed the destruction of health facilities to TPLF.
The second tactic utilized in pro-Ethiopian government social media campaigning is intimidation. This ranges from the benign, such as large-scale trolling and mass reporting of Tigrayan campaigns and accounts to the criminal, which has featured hacking of social media accounts and doxing (making public-private information obtained through hacks including personal data).
Intimidation efforts also extend beyond Tigrayans on social media to journalists, analysts, and human rights activists who have been defamed, attacked, and even threatened with death. Foreign governments and international organizations are not spared either. As can be seen below government supporters and officials claim foreign officials including Secretary of State Blinken have been bought off by the TPLF.
The third tactic is demonization. Although more persistent and pre-dating the war on Tigray, it came to its own as an organized campaign during the war. On 9 November 2020, Daniel Kibret, advisor to Prime Minister Abiy, stated that the devil is preferred many times over to TPLF. Shortly thereafter, on 14 November 2020, the official Facebook page of the Ethiopian National Defense Force referred to TPLF as a “bloodsucking devil” while portraying TPLF as a devil draped in the regional flag of Tigray, a flag that represents millions of Tigrayans.
The demonization campaign has further intensified in the past few months. Loosely coming under #TPLFisTheCause the social media campaign moved from previous efforts of denying or trying to create a diversion to offering a blanket justification for anything and everything that may be happening in Tigray. The website which hosted the pre-prepared tweets for this campaign literally advertised them as follows:
By proxy, the Ethiopian government thus gave itself a get-out-of-jail free card that exonerated it from any culpability, including the treasonous invitation of Eritrean troops into Tigray, the bombing and shelling of civilian infrastructure, and the horrific massacres and weaponized rape being reported on a regular basis. The campaign even painted the Ethiopian government’s choice to contravene International Humanitarian Law and deny access to humanitarian relief as the sole responsibility of TPLF.
The pre-prepared tweets making these declarations were not only shared by government supporters but by Ethiopian ministers and diplomats from their official government accounts. Bizarrely, many of these officials were part of the previous EPRDF government and part of the administration now being castigated as being an irredeemable mess. Of the countless such tweets two – from the same tweet bank and thus retweeted by many accounts – stand out for the extraordinary level of demonization they demonstrate and thus the potential they have to further ignite ethnically motivated violence.
The first of these, from a tweet by Berhanu Tsegaye, the Ethiopian Ambassador to Djibouti, declares that TPLF is cannibalistic. This intentionally dehumanizing language is worrying in that it seems to be an intentional dog whistle to label and demonize all Tigrayans not supporting the government. This becomes more significant when we consider that TPLF is not only a political party with thousands of members; it is an organization with which millions of Tigrayans collectively identify for historical reasons.
The second tweet goes even further – it declares that the TPLF had only enriched its own ethnicity, i.e., Tigrayans. In the context of a war characterized by ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans from certain areas and the destruction of all large-scale civilian infrastructure and facilities as well as extensive looting, this tweet suggests that these actions were not an unfortunate by-product of conflict but targets of intentional economic dispossession. It goes without saying that this level of hate speech coming from government operated accounts only serves to fuel and exacerbate violence.
Lastly, the fourth tactic is gaslighting. The Ethiopian government’s disinformation campaigns and its persistent denial of events, especially its pre-emptive lie about the involvement of Eritrean troops and continued denial about the presence of Eritrean troops, qualify as political gaslighting intended to create confusion and sow doubt in the public’s mind. For the purpose of this discussion, however, we highlight diversion techniques employed by Ethiopian government officials to gaslight the people of Tigray and to minimize the government’s “Tigray problem”. Ethiopian government officials have for example r attempted to avoid referring to Tigray by name and instead using the Northern Region or Northern Ethiopia in what seems like deliberate and co-ordinated effort to divert attention from an issue they consider threatening to their public image. As can be seen in the examples below, the Minister of Health, the Minister of Women, Children and Youth, and the Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States have all engaged in this form of gaslighting at different points.
Ethiopian government officials, including the Prime Minister himself, have also attempted to divert attention from explosive reports published by Amnesty and CNN on the Axum and Maryam Dengelat massacres, respectively. One such tool of diversion was the 125th commemoration of the victory of Adwa which was inordinately publicized and celebrated in diverse places, except ironically, Adwa itself. While commemorating the victory of Adwa in Addis Ababa, President Sahlework Zewde made no mention of the fact that Adwa was under Eritrean occupation, but promised to “take Ethiopia to the next level in the spirit of Adwa Victory.” On the same day, the Prime Minister busily tweeted pictures of a wheat field and the Awash National Park without acknowledging the humanitarian crisis or the damages to the Kafta Sheraro National Park in Tigray, which had been burning for weeks as a result of the war.
More recently, on 21 March 2021, in a Tweet about his meeting with the leadership of the Ethiopian National Defense Force, the Prime Minister brushed off allegations of mass atrocities, including the use of rape and sexual violence as reported by Channel 4 and CNN, as “accountability and disciplinary gaps [that] will be addressed.”
Even worse, in a parliamentary address on the 23rd of March, PM Abiy attempted to belittle concerns about the weaponization of rape in Tigray. This attempt to justify and normalize rape and other atrocities by creating a false equivalence with the alleged attack on the Northern Command base of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces might be the height of the Ethiopian government gaslighting campaign to date.
The War on Tigray has been characterized by the Ethiopian government’s deceitful attempts to control the narrative. Throughout the war, the government has co-opted the entire state apparatus and ramped up its attempt to impose hegemonic control on the narrative by launching campaigns of disinformation, intimidation, demonization, and gaslighting. For anyone that is paying close attention to the atrocities being committed by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara Regional forces in Tigray, it should be easy to tease out the truth from the fabric of lies propagated by the Ethiopian government. Those that continue to believe and amplify the government’s line are at best being willfully ignorant, succumbing to confirmation bias, or being duped by alternative facts. At worst, however, they are apologists for genocide, ethnic cleansing, and rape as a weapon of war. The examples presented in this article barely scratch the surface of the government’s coordinated cover-ups and propaganda. Nevertheless, these cover-ups are slowly being uncovered by the truths that are trickling out of Tigray. As it stands, the Ethiopian government is losing the War on Truth.
Bruck Kebede writes solely to be a voice for Tigrayan voices silenced due to the internet blackout in Tigray and targeted ethnic profiling in the rest of Ethiopia. Opinions expressed are solely his own and do not express the views or opinions of his educational institutions or his employers.