Credit: David Peterson from Pixabay

Last month, Facebook removed dozens of fake accounts in Ethiopia that targeted domestic users in the run-up to a recent election. An internal investigation found that they were linked to individuals close to the Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency.

According to the platform, some 1.1 million accounts followed one or more of these pages and about 766,000 joined one or more of the groups.

In Ethiopia, Facebook is pretty much the equivalent of the internet and the main source of digital news. Add to this an under-resourced mainstream media industry and low levels of media literacy and you get the perfect recipe for a misinformation disaster.

"Local initiatives that play the role of fact-checkers in Ethiopia are vital," says Rehobot Ayalew, the lead fact-checker at HaqCheck, which is a local fact-checking initiative formed inside the digital news outlet Addis Zeybe.

With a small team of four multilingual fact-checkers and two editors-researchers, HaqCheck monitors stories in English and four local languages across social and mainstream media. Their aim is to create in-house verification and data-analysis tools adapted to the Ethiopian context and help other African countries to set up their own fact-checking initiatives.

The use of social media in Ethiopia is relatively low compared to other countries but the number of social users is rising rapidly, particularly around events such as national elections. According to Datareportal, around 6.7m Ethiopians use social media - around six per cent of the population - but their number grew by half a million in 2020 alone.

The public relies largely on government-owned news outlets to get their information and most of the private media is more or less pro-government, too. When it comes to digital news, however, most Ethiopians turn to Facebook.

"The Facebook environment is mainly divided into two: those who are pro-government and those who are against it," explains Ayalew, adding that both sides are guilty of spreading mis- and disinformation on the platform.

One of the most important stories the team has been working on recently was the verification of an audio file that allegedly features Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addressing the ruling party. Ahmed can be heard as saying he would "rather die" than leave the office.

However, they were not able to confirm whether the recording was indeed fabricated since they could not get enough tools to verify the it. Instead, they warned the public to be extremely cautious of disputed content.

The lack of visibility is another challenge that fact-checkers face in Ethiopia. Ayalew is currently applying for HaqCheck to become one of Facebook’s official third-party fact-checkers in the country to help make their work more prominent. In the future, the organisation plans to build a training centre for journalists who want to fight misinformation and work on public media literacy.

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Update: An earlier version of this article stated that HaqCheck used Forensia to verify the audio allegedly featuring the Prime Minister. This was a mistake.

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