Hate and division on Facebook are not just a problem in the U.S. That’s one of the messages whistleblower Frances Haugen took to Congress last week, where she accused Facebook’s algorithms of quote, “literally fanning ethnic violence in Ethiopia,” a country that’s endured nearly a year of civil war.
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FRANCES HAUGEN: My fear is that without action, divisive and extremist behaviors we see today are only the beginning. What we saw in Myanmar and are now seeing in Ethiopia are only the opening chapters of a story so terrifying, no one wants to read the end of it.
CORNISH: The United Nations says millions of people have been forced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands are facing famine-like conditions because of the conflict between the Ethiopian government and Tigray rebels. Freelance journalist Zecharias Zelalem has been reporting extensively on Ethiopia, and he says he agrees with Haugen’s assessment. And we’ll pause here to note that Facebook is among NPR’s financial supporters.
Now, earlier, Zelalem described the role of social media in the conflict.
ZECHARIAS ZELALEM: Just looking at the instances of documented evidence over the course of the past three years in which prominent Facebook posters would post unverified, often inflammatory posts or rhetoric that would then go on to incite mob violence, ethnic clashes, crackdowns on independent press or outspoken voices.
CORNISH: Who were some of the perpetrators of this kind of violence? I mean, when you say someone posts misinformation, what could that look like that could start a mob?
ZELALEM: Well, in recent times, if we’re going to make reference to the ongoing conflict now, prominent members of the Ethiopian government or pro-government activists have been ramping up anti-Tigrayan rhetoric, as well as anti-journalist, anti-activist, inflammatory rhetoric targeting anyone who might be deemed critical of the Ethiopian government or critical of the Ethiopian government’s narratives. This has more or less normalized the state violence that’s been targeting ethnic Tigrayans over the course of the past 11 months, instilled a degree of fear amongst Ethiopian population.
CORNISH: The Ethiopian government has denied ethnic cleansing accusations. Can you talk about how the conflict is upending the lives of civilians?
ZELALEM: Well, I mean, the ethnic cleansing accusations are something that are very well-documented and corroborated by dozens of credible media sources and diplomatic sources, human rights organizations. At this point, 11 months into the conflict, it’s not really something that’s up for – it’s not really something that’s up for debate anymore.
CORNISH: Facebook has responded to Haugen’s criticisms by saying, quote, “to suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.” They also talk about the idea of having to balance freedom of expression in places where people use the platform. What, if anything, is this conversation like in Ethiopia? Is anyone talking about Facebook? From your position, are they doing what they say?
ZELALEM: Well, with regards to your second question, Ethiopia being a relatively authoritarian society, critical conversation is not something that’s encouraged. It’s something that could wind you up behind bars. So there isn’t that much of an open societal debate. But I can quite honestly say that Facebook has – if it has done anything, it’s not nearly enough, at least, because there have been more than enough documented incidents.
I know of a very recent instance where a media outlet posted an inflammatory post blaming members of an ethnic minority for carrying out the murders and kidnappings that took place on September 27. And this Facebook post got hundreds of shares, hundreds of likes, all sorts of reaction. And a day later, on the 28 of September – so just barely two weeks ago – the village cited in the Facebook post was ransacked, burnt to the ground, inhabitants murdered. Like I said, this is very recent. This is barely two weeks ago. And despite multiple efforts to report the post, it remains up and live as of this moment.
CORNISH: We’ve been speaking to journalist Zecharias Zelalem. Thank you for sharing your reporting.
ZELALEM: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: We reached out to Facebook. They told NPR that Ethiopia is a company priority and that it has worked to improve proactive detection to remove more harmful content at scale.