Photo depicting an Ethiopian New Year landscape with yellow Ethiopian indigenous flowers adey abeba. Sheep are seen grazing in the background.

Social Media’s Existential Crisis

by Lola E. Peters

The Seattle Globalist was a daily online publication that covered the connections between local and global issues in Seattle. The Emerald is keeping alive its legacy of highlighting our city’s diverse voices by regularly publishing and re-publishing stories aligned with the Globalist’s mission. 

Imagine this: You’re working 12,000 miles from home. There was a recent election in your home country, and the corrupt leadership was replaced by someone new, hailed worldwide as the one who will lead your country back to its rightful place as a world power. The losing party refuses to concede their loss, but the new leader is determined to return stability and grace to your people. To that end, the new party pursues the completion of a large infrastructure project that will revolutionize access to sustainable energy for everyone, especially those in rural communities. Your cousin, who lives there, has been excited about this new project and the new leadership. There was hope in the country for the first time in many years. But after a long visit with you, your cousin returns home to find disorder in her country.

One day your cousin texts you that a rebel force loyal to the former ruling party has launched an attack on a government installation. People are traumatized. People die. The attackers block all roads leading into the region surrounding the government installation and take hundreds of people hostage. 

Sound familiar? The MAGA insurrection as seen through the eyes of Americans living abroad? No. Although the parallels are uncanny, this is the story of the last 18 months in Ethiopia, as a group of domestic terrorists have been trying to unseat a duly elected government. 

For several days after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked a government installation in Tigray, I couldn’t reach my cousin, who is also caring for her elderly mother, sister, niece, and nephew. I didn’t know if it was just the normal, unreliable internet in her community, or if the government had taken it down again to keep false narratives from spreading via social media. I texted her, worried when the international media reported government troops were committing horrific atrocities. She finally responded with details not in the news, explaining the Ethiopian government had reluctantly accepted help from Eritrean troops, who subsequently attacked camps filled with refugees from the Eritrean civil war. Then the Ethiopian government expelled those troops from the country. Her explanation abated my fears.

Next I saw reports from major news outlets accusing the Ethiopian government of forbidding humanitarian aid from being delivered into the impacted region. My cousin sent me local news reports showing humanitarian aid has, in fact, been distributed in the troubled region and more is on the way. The government jailed or expelled some of the “humanitarian workers” driving aid into the region who supported the insurgency.

The media reports one story, while my cousin’s lived experience tells another. Who am I supposed to trust? 

This is not a fantasy. This is happening. Thousands of our Ethiopian friends and neighbors are experiencing some version of this frustration right now. 

Regardless of ethnicity, we don’t know if our families are alive, injured, or dead. We don’t know if our hometowns have been overrun by terrorists or saved. Sixty-thousand Ethiopians fled across the border into the already unstable Sudan. The TPLF, a coalition of corrupt leaders who were ousted from power in 2018 after 27 years of financially decimating Ethiopia, are using the people of Ethiopia’s Tigray region as pawns and hostages. They have blocked all roads leading into the northern region, making it difficult to aid the very people they purport to represent. 

Every day I check social media and online news sites for information. While the people of Tigray have no internet access, the TPLF rebels use their contacts within international humanitarian organizations to gain access. 

More and more, a pattern emerges: Major international news sites blame the new government for the insurgents’ acts, while demanding the current government stand down and call for a ceasefire. In the one instance when the government agreed to a ceasefire, the rebels immediately broke it by invading government military installations, stealing weaponry, and raiding other parts of the country, including sacred religious sites. Still the world press insists the government is to blame. 

My other cousin, who lives in the Bay Area, also gets emails and texts from home that tell a very different story from the tale spun by major media. How could this happen? In one instance, reporters copied a mistranslation from Facebook and accused Ethiopia’s prime minister of calling on people to arm themselves, when he actually called for the public to prepare themselves for difficult times. It was the equivalent of translating the idiom “when pigs fly” into “the pigs will arrive by airplane.” Even Amnesty International reports TPLF’s rebels are raping, looting, and committing crimes against humanity, but puts the responsibility for stopping and redressing these acts on the government. 

I’ve come to realize these media outlets are projecting a narrative onto the situation, rather than looking for the facts. They don’t have the courage to admit when they’re wrong.

More and more, I rely on my cousin’s texts and emails to confirm the family’s safety and the reality of what’s happening in Ethiopia. While the media reports rebels are about to overtake Addis Ababa, my cousin says the fighting is nearly 300 miles away from the capitol. 

To add to the frustration, our U.S. government scolds the duly elected Ethiopian government as if it is an errant child rather than a force trying to save its country from destruction. The U.S. government seems to have no one in their midst who truly understands Ethiopia’s culture or its real history. They continue to insist that Ethiopia’s troops should stand down. Rather than learning from its disastrous past foreign interventions, the U.S. State Department is poised to lead the country into yet another mistake and alienate yet another nation.

The TPLF rebel force is Ethiopia’s version of MAGA: losers who can’t reconcile themselves to the rejection of their leadership and their worldview. If MAGA had been fully armed on Jan. 6, would we have expected our government to stand by and do nothing? Would we have demanded a ceasefire from our federal troops if MAGA went on a rampage attacking cities across the country? Would we criticize President Biden if, in the midst of that battle, he told all Americans to do whatever was necessary to rout the insurgents?

The media labels all Ethiopians who share their lived experience on social media as government sympathizers, as if that’s a bad thing. Isn’t standing up for democracy, the rule of law, and the peaceful transition of government called patriotism? Aren’t people who attack installations of their own government called traitors?

Then, Twitter disabled Trends in Ethiopia. It became difficult for people within the country to find out what was happening. Now, Facebook has frozen my cousin’s account and is demanding she provide them with proof of her identity.

Social media has the potential to bind us together or tear us apart. In Ethiopia, it is doing both. Rather than fulfilling their responsibility to identify bots, bad actors, or falsehoods, social media companies are using a broad brush to make communication among the innocent as difficult as for the guilty. Facebook has exacerbated the war by creating mistranslations, instead of waiting to roll out the Amharic translation when its system masters the language. Perhaps Yuval Harari is right and we have created the seeds of our own undoing. Maybe Anne Applebaum’s article in The Atlantic is prescient. This may be the time we stand on the fulcrum’s center, deciding whether our species is able to adapt or will go extinct. 

Meanwhile, over 35,000 of our King County neighbors, friends, colleagues, and family of Ethiopian descent need extra love and support as we live with our hearts and minds in two places, struggling against fascism and tyranny. And we who have loved ones in Ethiopia need to remember we are stronger together than apart. We are, and have always been, the true Wakanda. Whether from Tigray, Amhara, Oromo, Afar, Gambela or elsewhere, we are branches of one tree.

Lola E. Peters is the operations administrator and an editor-at-large for the South Seattle Emerald.

📸 Featured Image: Ethiopian New Year landscape. Photo taken on Sept. 1, 2014, Ethiopian Calendar. Ethiopian indigenous flower “Adey Abeba.” Sheeps seen grazing. Photo attributed to Tewodros Kassa (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0 license).

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