The Ethiopian government has started developing a state-owned social media platform that can compete with all the biggest alternatives in existence, Reuters reports. However, the government does not intend to block services such as Facebook and Twitter.
For the past year, the Ethiopian social media space has been involved in the ongoing armed conflict between the central government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (which controls the northern region of Tigray).
Though a small minority use social media and internet penetration is limited to about 20 percent of the population, vocal supporters of both sides have engaged in a social media war of words. The Ethiopian government has come under criticism from human rights groups for linking it to unexplained social media blackouts affecting Facebook services. The government has not commented on these blackouts.
Now, Reuters reports that the Ethiopian government is developing a social media platform that it hopes will “replace” Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Zoom.
The news comes from Shumete Gizaw, director general of the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), which oversees telecommunications.
He is assured that the country has sufficient expertise to develop the platform; the INSA will not hire non-Ethiopians to assist. According to Shumete, the government has already piloted the new platform and it will be operational soon. The government has no plans to block services like Facebook and Twitter, he said.
Shumete accused Facebook of interfering with user-generated content by deleting posts and accounts that he believes are spreading “the true reality” of the conflict. He also told media that Facebook has blocked accounts of users who “preach national unity and peace”.
However, Facebook reported that it had removed a network of fake Ethiopian accounts linked to individuals affiliated with INSA just days before the national elections.
Shumete told Reuters: “The rationale behind developing technology with local capacity is clear […] why do you think China is using WeChat?”
Social media apps largely used by the Chinese diaspora, such as WeChat, YY and Weibo, have been accused of providing tools for censorship and surveillance by the Chinese government. For example, a Lowy Institute report on “digital authoritarianism” in China cited research showing that these platforms removed or blocked messages related to coronavirus, including politically neutral posts.
Social media services have been targeted by authoritarian governments seeking to suppress dissent, especially during moments of civil unrest. For example, internet services across Myanmar and Sudan have been blocked by their respective national governments.