Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Combating social media-fueled violence, disinformation

The advent of social media has transformed the world as we know it. Before the era of social media and the internet, people communicated largely face-to-face or through hand-written missives. Their introduction has revolutionized communication, drastically changing the way people interact all over the globe. According to information compiled by DataReportal, an online reference library offering hundreds of free reports offering data, insights, and trends, 4.7 billion people (59 percent of the total world population) used social media as of July 2022. The tale of social media to the world has been the proverbial two sides of a coin. Depending on how it is used, social media can be either a blessing or a curse.

Social media offers several advantages. These include, inter alia, improved connectivity; providing an avenue for the sharing of one’s expertise with other people; making it easier to gain knowledge in particular fields or areas of human endeavor; keeps users abreast of the latest information; availing entertaining content to users; and raising awareness and promoting a cause. Despite these advantages and other immense benefits of social media to mankind, it also has some disadvantages. Chief among the drawbacks of social media are decreased face-to-face communication, thereby harming interpersonal communications skills; addiction; cyberbullying; and the dissemination of information promoting violence and disinformation. It’s the last of these demerits that this editorial dwells on in the Ethiopian context. 

The outbreak of deadly war in northern Ethiopia in November 2020 and internecine strife in other parts of the country, particularly in the Oromia region has proven to be a fertile ground for individuals or groups bent on advancing evil political or personal objectives with the instrumentality of social media. TikTok and Telegram, which have millions of users in Ethiopia, can be singled out as the platforms on which violence and disinformation are being peddled wantonly. Videos and live chats calling for ethnic cleansing as well as both authentic and doctored graphic imagery can and indeed have been disseminated with relative ease on these platforms. As opposed to Facebook and Twitter, which undertake moderation of controversial content, albeit inadequately, TikTok and Telegram make little effort to prevent the spread of violence, disinformation and hate speech or to ban them promptly after they are reported. Although the unrest affecting several areas of Ethiopia cannot be solely ascribed to the consumption of such material over social media, its role in exacerbating an already volatile situation cannot be ignored.

There are a number of measures that can be taken to rein in the spread of violence and disinformation through social media. The enforcement of the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation of 2020, which some fear can be used to stifle the government’s opponents, is a step in the right direction if it’s genuinely implemented to achieve its stated objectives. Aside from setting out stiff penalties for the dissemination of hate speech and disinformation, the proclamation provides that any enterprise that provides social media services should endeavor to suppress and prevent the dissemination of disinformation and hate speech through its platform. It also stipulates that social media service providers should act within 24 hours to remove or take out of circulation disinformation or hate speech upon receiving notifications about such communications or posts. Domestic law is not sufficient, however, given the perpetrators of these crimes can be based overseas. It’s imperative to forge international rules aimed at holding global social media platforms accountable if and when they are found to be complicit in promoting violence and disinformation.

Needless to say, the government alone cannot do an effective job of limiting if not stopping the spread of violence and disinformation via social media. Social media platforms must stop using content moderation as a fig leaf and ramp it up given the efforts they have taken in this regard remains insufficient for the gigantic mass of racist or inciting content requiring such proactive steps as removing illegal and immoral content coupled with banning the offensive account owners. This should be complimented by the continuous and concerted sensitization of the public on the part of credible fact-checkers, civil society and religious organizations, educational institutions, and the mainstream media. It’s only then that the peddlers of violence and disinformation can be starved of oxygen and one of the scourges preventing Ethiopians from tasting the dividends of peace they have longed for can be fought effectively. 

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