Last year, after the inception of the nationwide unrest, which gradually peaked at forcing the Ethiopian government to shut down the Internet and declare a state of emergency, uncomfortable messages were deliberately distributed, in particular by some irresponsible users who had access to uncensored social networks.
Though the overall theme of the local protests was to fight maladministration, corruption, injustice, and to reverse the decision made by the government on issues related to certain unpopular policies, to any conscious person, it was crystal clear that there were groups both inside and outside the country who wanted to hijack the genuine cause of the mass protests to boost their hidden agendas.
They tried hard to instigate ethnic conflicts by creating delusion and deceiving the misinformed and gullible youth by spreading poisonous messages through TV, radio, and social networks.
Though propagation of such messages on social networks was not uncommon, no one had ever dared to turn such virtual heat into reality. It was last year that such posts increased in intensity, bearing a bitter fruit in real life.
The stereotyping, vilification, bigotry, bias, blatant racism and hatred, camouflaged by seemingly legitimate causes, were continuously repeated on a daily basis and intentionally directed at a specified ethnic group. It finally became powerful enough to hit the intended target and create chaos in some areas.
As a result, some were killed and robbed of their properties. Many (including women and children) left their homelands with bare hands, abandoning their properties – creating a temporary social crisis which the government and people struggled to solve jointly.
Who is to blame? I would blame not only the irresponsible people who spread racism and lies but also their means, the unregulated social networks.
Humans have the highest developed and advanced way of communication. Before the invention of the Internet, phone, TV or radio, the most common way of exchanging messages and information was sending a letter via post. Such letters have a name and a signature or a stamp of the sender, helping to make the sender accountable.
TV, radio and phones are also suitable for those who want to pour out poison among people, though not without compromising their security. For their true identity is known to everyone.
The most problematic means of communication comes along with the invention of the Internet and the social networks based on the web technology.
The pioneers of social networks like Six Degrees and Classmates were founded in the final decades of the 20th century, intended to be used by college and high school students as communication platforms. Gradually, with the expansion of the Internet, everyone joined and created websites for e-commerce, advertisements, news, dating, mail services and blogging.
Since then, the Internet evolved at an alarming speed with the advancement of the communication technology, and technology entrepreneurs started to build versatile and user-friendly social networks. Among the widely known social networks, Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus have already secured millions of users worldwide.
The founders of those giant social network companies often claim that the original and ultimate intention is to facilitate communication between people, to give a chance for every voice to be heard, to bring us together as a global family and make the world smaller.
Indeed, we have gotten a lot of benefits, and the grand idea seems very attractive, but it has not come without demerits. One great challenge is that there is no sufficient and adequate way to moderate or control the fake and harmful feeds and posts which play a destructive role in maintaining world peace.
At this time, people from every corner can use fake names to hide their true identity and spread whatever they want via the Internet without being accountable to what they have to say. Twitter feeds were among the great catalysts in facilitating the Arab Spring which ultimately led to long lasting crises.
Fake websites and hateful Facebook posts by fake names are playing a decisive role in spreading hate and racism here in Ethiopia. Also, last year, students were forced to take a re-examination when some people released the answers on social media.
Is shutting down the whole Internet, every time there is a challenge, a solution though? I do not believe so. Should there be an effective method for regulating the Internet and social media just like the case in China? I will leave it open for debate.
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