[BigData Sur] Exploring Facebook’s role in Ethiopia’s rising ethnic tensions

by Syver Petersen

As the world’s most widely used social media platform, Facebook has become a vehicle for extreme political forces and a breeding ground for pernicious stories bent on instigating conflict among groups. In Myanmar for example, an independent United Nations Human Rights Council Fact-Finding Mission found that Facebook played a ‘determining role’ in the recent mass atrocities committed against Rohingya people. Parallel to this, Facebook seeks to expand its userbase in the Global South(s) and, underpinned by modernisation narratives it proclaims its services as supportive of international development agendas.

In Ethiopia, recent ethnic conflict and resulting mass displacement are being linked to social media disinformation and hate speech. This blog reflects on my research on the role of Facebook in this politically polarised and culturally diverse country, with more than 80 languages and ethnic groups and undergoing a historical political transition.


In Africa’s second most populous country, ethnic-based violence has sharply risen in the last couple of years. Since Prime Minister and recent Nobel Peace Prize Laurate Dr. Abiy Ahmed took office in early 2018 Ethiopians have experienced a small ‘political revolution’. The Ethiopian government has gone from using widespread authoritarian practices to releasing political prisoners and journalists, even inviting back previously banned opposition groups.

However, in terms of ethnic relations, political commentators have referred to the opening the political space as taking the lid off a pressure cooker. Mass protest and violence has left more than a thousand dead, and in 2018 close to thee million were displaced due to ethnic conflict and violence, the largest increase in internal displacement globally that year.

Broadly speaking, ethnicity has been and still is one of the most important identities structuring the Ethiopian society. Especially since the fall of the ‘communist’ Derg regime in 1991, ethnic identity has been intentionally emphasised and promoted by the ruling political elites, and the country’s administrational regions were re-organised along ethnic lines. This only further entangled ethnic identity and politics.

The government largely assigns blame to social media for the recent ethnic turmoil. Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed stated that “The evangelists of hate and division are wreaking havoc in our society using social media”. Although social media cannot take full responsibility for the current situation, there is no doubt it plays an important role in shaping political discourse.  

In a context where neighbours kill each other on the basis of ethnic identity, and ethnic tension has the very real potential spin out of control, the potentially conflict-inducing effects of social media is an urgent issue. 

As has been noted in other countriesfilter-bubbles, as a result of algorithms personalising online experiences such as the Facebook News Feed, can trap individuals and groups in a state of intellectual isolation. This can reinforce already held viewpoints without challenging them, encouraging partisanship and tribalism. In the highly polarised situation Ethiopia finds itself, I believe this phenomenon merits particular concern. As speech aimed at creating suspicion, spreading fear and encouraging violence, increasingly circulates on Facebook in Ethiopia, Facebook’s personalised algorithmic filtering might further polarise ethnic relations.

Furthermore, in August 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed plans to hold Ethiopia’s first ‘free and fair’ election since 2005. As the election approaches, the ethnic-based tension and conflict has taken centre stage and the challenge poses a real threat to the country’s political stability. 

Social media use in Ethiopia

Ethiopians using social media are a subset of a subset of another subset–those who have access to electricity, those who have access to the internet and finally those who have accounts on social media. This group is estimated to be only 6 percent of the population. Much of the ethnic-based violence occurs in areas where even electricity is scarce, let alone internet access, like in the case of Guji-Gedeo in Southern Ethiopia, where recent conflicts have displaced close to one million people. Despite this, Ethiopia has one of the world’s fastest growing social media user rates, and social media are becoming increasingly important especially among the massive youth population. Furthermore, through word of mouth, which is still the main source of news for many Ethiopians, social media content appears to reach far beyond the fraction of the population with direct access to social media services. 

My research

As a case for exploring how Facebook influences Ethiopian ethnic-based conflict, I will study its role in recent conflicts between students at the Debre Berhan University, situated in central Ethiopia, about 120 kilometres North-East of the capital Addis Ababa.

Ethiopian universities have long been a hotspot for ethnic riots and violence. In Debre Berhan University, two dormitories were set on fire and a student was killed just off campus last year. Both incidents are suspected to be connected to the wider ethnic conflicts around the country. 

The potentially divisive effects of personalisation algorithms have sparked debates across various scientific disciplines. Some claim that effects are negligible while others highlight them as determining. My study seeks to contribute to this debate by exploring filter-bubble effects in the Facebook News Feed, but also how the students in this specific socio-cultural context relate to and are influenced by their social media information diets.

In order to get access to the student’s personalised Facebook News Feeds, I have asked participants, in their presence, to share access to their social media accounts. I have then used the facebook.tracking.exposed web browser extension– developed as part of the Algorithms Exposed project, a DATACTIVE spin-off– to collect, sort and analyse content from the student’s News Feeds. The idea is to compare the information diets of students from the two main conflicting groups. This will hopefully reveal the extent of filter bubbles, as well as what content participants are actually exposed by the News Feed algorithm. 

As Facebook aggressively expands into new market territory, critical engagement with its context-specific societal effects is pivotal. This is particularly urgent in the context of the fragile Ethiopian political situation, where there is a pressing need for more knowledge about the role of social media in mediating ethnic conflict. 

Syver Petersen

Syver is studying a MSc in International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam. His academic interests are oriented around how digital technology and big data impact power relations, political engagement and conflicts in the Global South(s).