Facebook Knew it was Used to Incite Violence in Ethiopia

It did little to stop the spread, documents show.

By Eliza Mackintosh

Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray, in northern Ethiopia, seen through a broken window in the Ayder Referral Hospital in May.

Facebook employees repeatedly sounded the alarm on the company's failure to curb the spread of posts inciting violence in "at risk" countries like Ethiopia, where a civil war has raged for the past year, internal documents seen by CNN show.

The social media giant ranks Ethiopia in its highest priority tier for countries at risk of conflict, but the documents reveal that Facebook's moderation efforts were no match for the flood of inflammatory content on its platform.

The documents are among dozens of disclosures made to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and provided to Congress in redacted form by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen's legal counsel. A consortium of 17 US news organizations, including CNN, has reviewed the redacted versions received by Congress.

They show employees warning managers about how Facebook was being used by "problematic actors," including states and foreign organizations, to spread hate speech and content inciting violence in Ethiopia and other developing countries, where its user base is large and growing. Facebook estimates it has 1.84 billion daily active users -- 72% of which are outside North America and Europe, according to its annual SEC filing for 2020.

The documents also indicate that the company has, in many cases, failed to adequately scale up staff or add local language resources to protect people in these places.

Facebook used by militias 'to seed calls for violence'

The reports CNN has obtained provide further insights into the scale of the problem in Ethiopia, elements of which were reported by The Wall Street Journal last month.

CNN's publication of these warnings from within Facebook comes seven months after a Facebook team initially shared an internal report entitled "Coordinated Social Harm."

The report, distributed in March, said that armed groups in Ethiopia were using the platform to incite violence against ethnic minorities in the "context of civil war." At that time, a conflict in the country's northern Tigray region between its former ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Ethiopian government had been rumbling on for five months. Intermittent internet blackouts and media restrictions had obscured much of the fighting.

A destroyed tank on a roadside in western Tigray in May.

Ethiopia is an ethnically and religiously diverse nation of about 110 million people who speak scores of languages. Its two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara, make up more than 60% of the population. The Tigrayans, the third largest, are around 7%.

One of the groups flagged in the March report was the "Fano," an ethnic Amhara militia group with a reputation for brutality that has been drawn into the war in Tigray, sometimes fighting alongside Ethiopian government forces. Facebook said it had observed a cluster of accounts affiliated with the militia group, including some based in Sudan, using its platform to "seed calls for violence," promote armed conflict, recruit and fundraise.

Since the war started last November, the Fano militia have been linked by displaced Tigrayans to human rights abuses, including the killings of civilians, looting and rape, according to the United Nations rights office, Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Though the Facebook team said it had recommended the Fano-affiliated network be taken down, it suggested that other bad actors promoting violence on its platform were simultaneously slipping through the cracks. In a headline in bold, the team warned: "Current mitigation strategies are not enough."

The Facebook documents also detail the platform's removal of a cluster of accounts linked to the Oromo diaspora, mostly based in Egypt, which was targeting Ethiopian audiences with highly inflammatory content, including "explicit calls to violence against government officials and other ethnic groups." One inciteful post highlighted in a report shared a photo of what appears to be a Molotov cocktail being lit and the statement: "Burn the whole country down."

The whistleblower, Haugen, said one of her core motivations for gathering the internal documents was bringing to light "how badly Facebook is handling places like Ethiopia," where she suggested engagement-based ranking was fanning ethnic violence.

"I genuinely fear that a huge number of people are going to die in the next five to ten years, or twenty years, because of choices and underfunding" by Facebook, Haugen said.

In comments made to the consortium, Haugen emphasized the vast difference between the integrity and security systems rolled out by Facebook in the United States versus the rest of the world, adding that the company was not adequately policing its platform in