February 3, 2023

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A new lawsuit accuses Meta of instigating the civil war in Ethiopia

On November 3, 2021, Meareg Amare, a professor of chemistry at Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia, was gunned down in front of his home. Amare, who was ethnically Tigrayan, had been targeted the month before in a series of Facebook posts alleging 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 received nothing in return for weeks. Eight days after his father’s murder, Abrham received a response from Facebook saying one of the posts against his father, shared by a page with more than 50,000 followers, had been removed.

“I hold Facebook personally responsible for the murder of my father,” he says.

Today, Abrham, along with other researchers and Amnesty International’s Legal Counsel, Fisseha Tekle, filed a lawsuit against Meta in Kenya, alleging that the company allowed hate speech to circulate widely on the platform, leading to widespread violence. The lawsuit asks the company to deprioritize hateful content in the platform’s algorithm and to increase its content moderation staff.

“Facebook must no longer prioritize profit at the expense of our communities. Like radio in Rwanda, Facebook has fanned the flames of war in Ethiopia,” says Rosa Curling, director of Foxglove, a UK-based non-profit organization that fights human rights abuses by global tech giants. The organization supports the petition. “The company has clear tools in place – adjust its algorithms to mitigate viral hate, hire more local staff and ensure they are paid well and that their work is safe and fair – to prevent this from happening goes on.”

Ethiopia has been locked in a civil war since 2020. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded to attacks on federal military bases by dispatching troops to Tigray, a region in the country’s north bordering 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 senior investigator on Ethiopia, has further implicated Facebook in the distribution of abusive content that the petition said was endangering the life of his family. Since 2021, Amnesty and Tekle have received widespread reprimands from supporters of the Tigray campaign in Ethiopia – apparently for not blaming the atrocities committed during the war directly on Tigray separatists. Indeed, Tekle’s research into the myriad crimes against humanity amid the conflict has touched belligerents on all sides, finding that the separatists and the Ethiopian federal government are jointly responsible for systematic killings and rapes of civilians. Tekle told reporters during a press conference in October, “There is no innocent party that has not committed human rights abuses in this conflict.”

In a statement Foxglove shared with WIRED, Tekle spoke of witnessing “firsthand” Facebook’s alleged role in tainting research aimed at shedding light on state-sponsored massacres and described social Media platforms that perpetuate hate and disinformation corrosive to the work of human rights defenders.

Facebook, used by more than 6 million people in Ethiopia, has been a major avenue for narratives targeting and dehumanizing Tigrayans to spread. In a July 2021 Facebook post, which remains on the platform, Prime Minister Ahmed called the Tigrayan rebels a “weed” that needs to be pulled. However, the Facebook papers revealed that the company was unable to adequately moderate content in most of the country’s more than 45 languages.