A New Lawsuit Accuses Meta of Inflaming Civil War in Ethiopia

On November 3, 2021, Meareg Amare, a professor of chemistry at Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia, was gunned down outside his home. Amare, who was ethnically Tigrayan, had been targeted in a series of Facebook posts the month before, alleging that he had stolen equipment from the university, sold it, and used the proceeds to buy property. In the comments, people called for his death. Amare’s son, researcher Abrham Amare, appealed to Facebook to have the posts removed but heard nothing back for weeks. Eight days after his father’s murder, Abrham received a response from Facebook: One of the posts targeting his father, shared by a page with more than 50,000 followers, had been removed.

“I hold Facebook personally responsible for my father’s murder,” he says.

Today, Abrham, as well as fellow researchers and Amnesty International legal adviser Fisseha Tekle, filed a lawsuit against Meta in Kenya, alleging that the company has allowed hate speech to run rampant on the platform, causing widespread violence. The suit calls for the company to deprioritize hateful content in the platform’s algorithm and to add to its content moderation staff.

“Facebook can no longer be allowed to prioritize profit at the expense of our communities. Like the radio in Rwanda, Facebook has fanned the flames of war in Ethiopia,” says Rosa Curling, director of Foxglove, a UK-based nonprofit that tackles human rights abuses by global technology giants. The organization is supporting the petition. “The company has clear tools available—adjust their algorithms to demote viral hate, hire more local staff and ensure they are well-paid, and that their work is safe and fair—to prevent that from continuing.”

Since 2020, Ethiopia has been embroiled in civil war. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded to attacks on federal military bases by sending troops into Tigray, a region in the country’s north that borders neighboring Eritrea. An April report released by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found substantial evidence of crimes against humanity and a campaign of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Tigrayans by Ethiopian government forces. 

Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty International’s lead Ethiopia researcher, has further implicated Facebook in propagating abusive content, which, according to the petition, endangered the lives of his family. Since 2021, Amnesty and Tekle have drawn widespread rebuke from supporters of Ethiopia’s Tigray campaign—seemingly for not placing the blame for wartime atrocities squarely at the feet of Tigrayan separatists. In fact, Tekle’s research into the countless crimes against humanity amid the conflict fingered belligerents on all sides, finding the separatists and federal Ethiopian government mutually culpable for systematic murders and rapes of civilians. Tekle told reporters during an October press conference: “There’s no innocent party which has not committed human rights violations in this conflict.”

In a statement Foxglove shared with WIRED, Tekle spoke of witnessing “firsthand” Facebook’s alleged role in tarnishing research aimed at shining a light on government-sponsored massacres, describing social media platforms perpetuating hate and disinformation as corrosive to the work of human rights defenders.

Facebook, which is used by more than 6 million people in Ethiopia, has been a key avenue through which narratives targeting and dehumanizing Tigrayans have spread. In a July 2021 Facebook post that remains on the platform, Prime Minister Ahmed referred to Tigrayan rebels as “weeds” that must be pulled. However, the Facebook Papers revealed that the company lacked the capacity to properly moderate content in most of the country’s more than 45 languages. 

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