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BBC Amharic - A BBC Investigation Confirms Members Of A “Media Army” Organized By The Prosperity Party Are Involved In Dissemination Of False Information In Facebook Campaigns

Disclaimer: This is an English translation of an Amharic article taken from BBC Amharic and is intended solely for information purposes.

BBC Amharic - A Bbc Investigation Confirms Members Of A “Media Army” Organized By The Prosperity Party Are Involved In Dissemination Of False Information In Facebook Campaigns

Amanuel Yilkal

BBC Nairobi

April 19, 2024

BBC through its investigation has been able to confirm that members of the ruling Prosperity Party in their branch office in Addis Ababa city have been operating a “media army” as they disseminate writings and graphics including disinformation and content which constitutes “hate speech” on Facebook targeting party critics.

The Addis Ababa city administration’s woreda officials under direction from the party’s woreda structure have participated in misinformation campaigns to artificially build the government’s public image on Facebook. As part of this investigation BBC has interviewed Addis Ababa woreda officials, party members and communication officials and professionals in city and federal government offices.

BBC has reviewed messages related to social media campaigns shared between members of the party woreda structure (comprised of members from all seven sub-cities of Addis Ababa city) on WhatsApp and Telegram. BBC also followed orders and directives passed on to woreda officials and members of the media army within these groups. Facebook data was also collected for research.

Facebook’s parent organization Meta responded to BBC saying “fake accounts” using Facebook images depicting the “Ethiopian Government” shared “a large number of positive comments” based on their investigations. Meta expressed that it had taken action on fake accounts and pages which partook in this activity, and accounts followed by BBC were removed.

In a written response to BBC, the Prosperity Party denied the existence of a structure known as the “media army”. The party’s head office in its response said “particularly what was described as ‘[dissemination of] writings and images which constitute false information and hate speech’ were completely baseless.”

BBC conducted a three month investigation into members of the Prosperity Party’s “media army” and their campaigns on Facebook and the findings are included in this report.

Over three months ago starting on January 11, 2024 (Tir 2, 2016 EC) starting at around 3 pm various Ethiopian Facebook accounts and pages began disseminating the message “Abune Petros has defected from the country”.

The coordinated text posts and images appeared on Facebook after Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church secretary Abune Petros departed from Addis Ababa to America for a trip.

BBC confirmed from the church that the New York and Area Region Diocese Bishop Abune Petros left the country “in accordance with official standard procedure”.

On that day the three main messages disseminated began with “breaking news, Abune Petros has defected from the country”, “The American Abune Petros has defected from the country!”, “the truths behind the American Abune Petros’ defection!

The writings accuse Abune Petros of “leading a clandestine political organization within the church” and “disappearing with large sums of money and property belonging to the church

Among the three messages the one that was most widely disseminated was “breaking news, Abune Petros has defected from the country” and this message was posted at least 1,004 times between January 11 and 12, 2024 (Tir 2 and 3, 2016 EC) alone on various Facebook accounts and pages. This message was shared alongside graphic photographs and was posted at least 898 times on January 11th (Tir 2nd) on Facebook.

Fig 1. Among the Facebook posts which said Abune Petros “defected” the majority were paired with the hashtags “extremism must be eliminated” and “the army is the nation’s shield”.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church disputed the matter the following day saying, “the rumors circulating on social media are mistaken”. BBC posed the question to Abune Petros who said he preferred not to comment.

Over one month after the message was disseminated Abune Petros who was said to have “defected” returned to Ethiopia however he was turned away from Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa city.

On that day the disseminated writings which claimed the synod’s secretary “defected” were unlike the usual pattern of disinformation spread. BBC followed the matter and uncovered evidence linking the dissemination of these materials to the ruling Prosperity Party when tensions arose with the church during the month of Tir (early February) of last year.

In Tir 2015 EC the government was accused of “providing support” to a splinter group of religious leaders within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church’s Synod which caused tension between the groups, after which accusations emerged of church leaders supporting armed groups also during the month of Tir.

Based on BBC’s investigations, the writings which mentioned defection of the Synod’s Secretary Abune Petros were accompanied by images which originated from the Prosperity Party Addis Ababa Branch Office and woreda structure which were part of the WhatsApp group.

The party’s woreda structure disseminated messages to members of the “media army” through the WhatsApp groups as part of their social media campaign.

BBC followed message exchanges, orders and campaigns sent to members of the media army by leaders for months in the WhatsApp group. The WhatsApp group in Kirkos sub-city Prosperity Party Branch Office was managed by one woreda party office.

Fig 2. Pictures that were shared on the WhatsApp group included the phrases “extremist” and “the American” describing the “defection” of Abune Petros.

When Abune Petros traveled to America on January 11th (Tir 2), members of the group were given orders to disseminate 19 messages on Facebook containing pictures of the Synod Secretary with messages that he defected. When the group’s leader shared the pictures to members of the group they were instructed to share “widely” on their “informal” Facebook pages.

Members of the woreda media army were sent the order “you must actively and widely disseminate this message on all of your informal pages. There should be no one in our structure who does not participate. Everyone must participate.”

The pictures that were shared in the WhatsApp group were identical to the pictures associated with the posts shared across Facebook. BBC however noticed there were three writings that were not sent to members of the WhatsApp group.

Members of the Kirkos sub-city woreda party structure were not the only members of the Prosperity Party’s media army to participate in this campaign. Prosperity Party members in Bole sub-city also received photos and writings describing the defection of the Abune according to an official from the Bole sub-city woreda who spoke to BBC on condition of anonymity out of concern for their security.

Officials of the Woreda Party Branch Office were sent these pictures and writings on the WhatsApp group under direction to partake in the “campaign” according to the source.

“[text sent to the group] describes Abune Petros’ nationality and says he ‘left the country and defected’. It says, ‘he used his foreign nationality as a cover to prepare false documents and leave the country by illegal means.’” BBC has been able to confirm that the writing shared on the WhatsApp group that day was similar to what was posted on Facebook.

The matter of Abune Petros was not the only Facebook campaign coordinated by the woreda structure of the Addis Ababa city Prosperity Party Branch Office.

Fig 3. In Addis Ababa city officials from the woreda level up to the sub-city levels participated in the social media campaign. There were more than 500 officials at the sub-city level and more than 3,500 officials at the woreda level of the city administration.

The membership of the ‘Media Army’ and orders passed down to them

BBC has been able to confirm that the party's woreda structure in Addis Ababa city repeatedly disseminated writings, photos and videos in Facebook campaigns intended to boost the government’s image.

BBC was able to identify six other Telegram groups in which the party woreda structure would exchange messages with membership of the media army comprising officials from the Yeka, Akaki Kaliti, Nefas Silk Lafto, Lemi Kura, Gulele and Kolfe Keraniyo sub-cities.

BBC spoke to Prosperity Party members including government communications officers and professionals at the federal and Addis Ababa city levels who said the Facebook campaigns carried out by the party’s “media army” were coordinated woreda officials. Sources said the campaigns were carried out so that government and party “narratives would dominate”.

According to sources BBC spoke to and reviewed message exchanges on WhatsApp and Telegram, the “media army” included membership of the youth and women's leagues in addition to individuals identifying as “social activists”.

Four sources including a woreda official and communications officials and professionals within the city administration told BBC Addis Ababa city woreda officials were involved in this activity. BBC was able to follow message exchanges on WhatsApp and Telegram made by Kirkos and Yeka sub-city woreda party offices.

In one Telegram group, message exchanges between more than 30 members of one woreda within Yeka sub-city indicate group members were officials from various offices in the woreda level administration. BBC was able to verify identities of woreda officials in these groups.

All officials within the city’s woreda administration receive “orders” including having more than one Facebook account as confirmed by three sources who spoke to BBC. This kind of additional account is referred to as an “informal page” in the WhatsApp and Telegram groups.

According to information reviewed by BBC, the involvement of woreda officials on social media was not of their own volition. The matter of the officials’ use of social media was also subject to performance review according to an Addis Ababa city woreda official, sub-city communications head and city administration communications professional who spoke to BBC.

Work undertaken in city woredas undergoes review and is given “political direction” by a “coordinating committee” comprised of five “core officials” comprised of officials of the woreda administration and party structure

Decisions made by this committee include use of social media as an agenda item according to the source who explains it is a matter that could result in punitive action if not fulfilled. “If a member of the leadership does not participate when given orders ‘to campaign’, they may face penalty. Over 30-something [woreda] officials would participate. A screenshot is taken and it is pinned at the top. Then a message is passed up to the sub-city saying this individual participated and this individual did not participate.”

Fig 4. Based on the Telegram and WhatsApp groups reviewed by BBC, woreda officials and other members of the media army ask for screenshots of Facebook posts, comments and shares.

A sub-city communications head told BBC this kind of performance review is also carried out at the level of the sub-city. Performance reviews are led by party officials, and regarding posts on government and party pages, participants are asked, “why are you not liking and sharing?

As BBC has observed from WhatsApp and Telegram groups, social media participation of members of the party’s woreda-level structure is repeatedly raised. BBC has reviewed message exchanges in the groups calling on members of the media army to share “screen shots” proving they have been liking, commenting and sharing content.

Woreda officials request members of the media army to share links to their Facebook accounts and party members are given orders in the group to provide their accounts unlocked “for inspection”.

BBC’s repeated efforts to contact the Addis Ababa city administration for comment on these activities, spread of disinformation and hate speech, were unsuccessful.

The city’s communications bureau head Woizero Enatalem Melese asked that the questions be sent in letter form but BBC still did not receive a response despite complying.

The Prosperity Party head office on its end responded to BBC by denying the existence of any structure within the party called the “media army”. The party responded to allegations of artificial profile building on behalf of the government and its officials by saying “there is no activity other than the usual regular social media use”.

The response continued saying members of the party, “using pages or personal accounts to advance the party’s stance” and “either from lack of understanding or intentionally to campaign [on behalf of the party] will face punitive action in accordance with the party's guidelines.”

The head office defended itself saying, “outside of use of social media for practical purposes, [party members] absolutely would not open fake accounts or share identical [monotonous] messages.”

Fig 5. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed enjoyed widespread support from the public when he came to power in 2018 (2010 EC).

Facebook Campaigns to “produce acceptance”

Since the political change that brought the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed administration to power six years ago social media has exerted “significant influence” on Ethiopian politics according to Head Director at the Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy Ato Fikadu Hailu.

Especially during protests in Oromia Region in 2016 (2008 EC), road closures and directions were coordinated by political activists through Facebook.

Ato Fikadu explains the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed administration was brought to power through these protests and at this time “it appears the regime has encountered challenges to its acceptance.”

CARD’s Executive Director cites “severe instability in the largely populous Oromia and Amhara Regions, and in the influential Tigray Region” as major challenges to his losing acceptance.

He elaborates with further explanation saying, “the collapse of security, economic hardships related to the lack of security, human rights violations, obstructions to freedom of movement and various other problems are damaging the government’s acceptance. Many have lost hope with the belief that ‘rule of law has been undermined, corruption is on the rise’.”

Ato Fikadu explains these reasons have created grievances among the public which are communicated on social media and he believes this has “created an impression that the Prime Minister does not have a significant amount of allies and supporters.”

According to Ato Befikadu under posts or videos depicting the prime minister there would be comments that were “positive, containing excessive praise, and which appeared to be not truthful or genuine”. He concludes that this activity indicates that the government has lost its ability to “garner approval and acceptance” for various reasons.

In the Kirkos sub-city WhatsApp group observed by BBC, during the period when the prime minister appeared in front of the house of peoples' representatives to deliver a speech which was shared on government social media pages, comments were prepared in various languages for members of the media army.

As an example we may review activities of members of the media army when on February 6, 2024 (Tir 28, 2016 EC) Prime Minister Abiy appeared in the parliament to discuss the progress of the last six months and address questions,

Fig 6. On the day the Prime Minister appeared in parliament over 93 prepared comments were distributed to members of the WhatsApp group. After the meeting was finished, over 26 graphics/photos containing pictures or the speech from Abiy were released to the group.

On this day members of the WhatsApp group were told to post comment writings which praised Prime Minister Abiy, the government and the Prosperity Party. On the direct broadcast of the meeting from the Prime Minister’s page over 93 messages were prepared in Amharic and Afan Oromo languages to be distributed as comments.

During the first part of the parliamentary session there were over 10,000 comments being made under the Prime Minister’s Facebook page. BBC used a tool to extract over 5,000 of the Facebook comments for further analysis. Based on the analysis, among the chosen comments at least 160 were among messages sent to the WhatsApp group.

BBC submitted a request for comment from the spokesperson of the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office regarding the activities but did not receive a response.

These kinds of writings were similarly shared on a separate occasion when a program called “from Akaki to the forest” was broadcasted on the Facebook page of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC).

On January 17 and 18, 2024 (Tir 8 and 9, 2016 EC) the program was broadcasted in two consecutive parts when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed toured several mega projects that were either complete or under construction to officials.

During the days when the program was broadcasted members of the WhatsApp group were provided 128 writings in the Amharic, Afan Oromo, and English languages to comment under the EBC page. According to BBC’s investigations, over 49 writings sent to the group were posted 108 times as comments on the first day of the program.

When the first part of the program was being broadcasted live on Facebook, comments made resembled writings prepared by other Prosperity Party structures as they were also published many times.

When this program was broadcasted similar writings were repeatedly made by various Facebook accounts and pages. Among these writings one of them said, “Dr. Abiy Ahmed who understands the value of natural resources, is renovating natural areas and development projects as well as modern tourist sites.”

Various Facebook accounts shared this text in comments at least 78 times. Another set of writings in English were commented more than 100 times.

Based on BBC’s review it has verified that photos and videos prepared for campaign distribution in the woreda Prosperity WhatsApp group were writings that praised projects completed by the Addis Ababa city Prosperity Office and particularly those done by the city administration.

In the month of Yekatit (February 9 to March 9, 2024) campaigns were undertaken to praise the Adwa Victory Memorial project weeks before it was inaugurated. In the month of Megabit (March 10 to April 8, 2024) campaigns were prepared to attack critics of the alleged road corridor development project which resulted in demolitions of countless buildings and houses in the Piassa area.

Digital Human Rights Law researcher Dr. Yohannes Eniyew from Monash University in Australia said campaigns are undertaken “with involvement of large numbers of people in mobs” to control the narrative on social media and that these campaigns are leading to “misleading or false activities”.

Dr. Yohannes explains accounts supporting the government or bots “impersonate real citizens” and these activities are used especially during election periods to share candidates’ political platforms and that this “disrupts trust and the capacity to decide.”

Beyond this there are efforts underway to control social media by “overwhelming with great numbers” and this one way to “push people who actively write away from the platform”.

Dr. Yohannes explains, “when this kind of activity transpires, ‘freedom of expression can be infringed on and social discussion and social media discussion can be infringed and this violates article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights therefore we can see that these kinds of coordinated disinformation campaigns are illegal based on international human rights law.”

Fig 7. On January 28, 2024 (Tir 19, 2016 EC) these writings regarding the Adwa Memorial Museum were disseminated and on this day it was posted at least 551 times by various accounts and pages.

Campaigns involving “hate-infused speech” against critics and opposition figures

Building up the image of the government or party is not the only duty of members of the Prosperity Party’s “media army”. BBC has verified that members of the “media army” comment writings provided to them under Facebook pages that criticize the government.

Among those whose Facebook posts received these kinds of comments was the former Minister of Peace Building and National Consensus Ato Taye Denda. Over the past four months Ato Taye has been detained following a letter he issued on December 11, 2023 (Tahasass 1, 2016 EC) communicating his resignation and expressing strong criticism and incriminating language against Prime Minister Abiy.

The former Minister of Peace Building and National Consensus had called the Prime Minister an “evil individual that played with the blood of innocents” and was arrested the night he issued the letter.

That night the WhatsApp group coordinator sent 23 writings to group members blaming and insulting Ato Taye. When these writings which called the former Minister of Peace a “thug” were sent, the link to Ato Taye's Facebook post was included.

The group’s administrator issued an order calling for “all officials, members and supporters of the media army should make a comment. Sharing or liking the post is prohibited.”

More than 14,600 comments were left under Ato Taye’s post. BBC was able to extract 5,000 for further analysis, and found that writings shared to the WhatsApp group appeared under Ato Taye’s Facebook post at least 365 times as comments.

Fig 8. BBC was able to verify that writings sent by the WhatsApp group administrator appeared under Ato Taye’s Facebook post at least 365 times as comments made by various accounts.

Among the targets of the Prosperity Party’s “media army” campaigns were leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). During the month of Tir (January 10 to February 8, 2024) when TPLF was convening closed meetings, photos emerged alleging the party’s leader Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael and executive committee member Fetlework Gebreegziabher had been acting as “obstacles” against the implementation of the Pretoria deal.

Members of the group were sent 20 assorted pictures referring to Dr. Debretsion and other Tigray officials (his “associates”) as “viruses of the people”. BBC has confirmed that this picture was posted on Facebook over 330 times.

Near the end of the month of Tikimit (October 12 - November 10, 2023) pictures were sent to the WhatsUp group in a similar manner when the Tigray Interim Regional Administration Deputy President Ato Alem Gebrewahid, former Chief Cabinet Secretariat Ato Amanuel Assefa and other officials were removed from their offices.

BBC has confirmed among the 20 images posted on Facebook was a depiction of Ato Alem Gebrewahid who is referred to as  a “cancer of Tigray”.

According to digital human rights law researcher Dr. Yohannes, descriptions of government critics in this way constitutes “hate speech”.

Prime Minister Abiy’s government had enforced laws (Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation) in 2019 (2012 EC) to combat “control spread of hate speech and disinformation”. This law was passed according to the declaration in order to “necessarily prevent and control the spread of deliberate hate speech and disinformation.”

The law states that spread of hate speech on social media is punishable by law and that persons found guilty of this practice could face up to three years of imprisonment.

Dr. Yohannes who raised legal accountability said, “it is very difficult to enforce this law when the government is at fault. The only option left is corrective use.” He says actions taken by social media corporations are decisive.

In the Prosperity Party head office’s response to BBC, allegations that party members “spread writings and images which can be considered hate speech and disinformation” is “a baseless allegation”.

The office denied involvement in these practices stating, the spread of disinformation and hate speech “is something we actively fight both as a party or a government, and to which we are victimized on a daily basis therefore there is no reason we would partake in such acts.”

The party in its response said “this allegation is baseless and does not represent neither the vision or actions of the party” and recalled that the House of Peoples' Representatives passed a majority law aimed at “preventing hate speech and disinformation”.

The party’s head office said, “we have long implemented corrective measures for common mistakes let alone ‘disinformation’ and ‘hate speech’, and even now if we receive evidence of similar acts now, we provide assurance that we will take appropriate corrective measures.”

Measures taken by Meta

Facebook’s parent corporation Meta classifies spread of false information through coordinated social media campaigns “coordinated inauthentic behavior”.

BBC shared the findings of its investigation into the Prosperity Party's media army with Meta which confirmed the presence of coordinated inauthentic behavior and stated it had taken action.

In Meta’s email response to BBC it said based on its investigations it found that “fake accounts” containing Facebook links associated with the “Government of Ethiopia” had “left a large number of positive comments”. The parent corporation stated these acts directly violated Meta’s policy on inauthentic behavior and that it had taken action to shut down “a cluster of accounts and Pages”.

In an email response to BBC Meta’s spokesperson said, “we have taken action against a cluster of accounts which violated our policy on inauthentic behavior. A subset of the accounts and pages were removed by our automatic detection system. The accounts and pages were involved in spammy activity intended to share posts about the Ethiopian Government to increase reach in an artificial manner.”

The company did not specify how many Facebook accounts and pages it took down in relation to this policy. BBC observed in the days leading up to the email response the Facebook accounts below were taken down.

Fig 10. When the Prime Minister broadcasted his parliamentary session on his Facebook page, this account which had posted at least 43 comments of praise was taken down by Facebook’s parent company Meta.

Based on BBC’s investigation of over 200 accounts, the majority of members of the Prosperity Party’s media army display similar behavior on their Facebook accounts and pages. The majority of Facebook accounts do not have photos of themselves like typical Facebook users.

These accounts largely use profile pictures depicting Prime Minister Abiy and Addis Ababa city Mayor Adanech Abiebie. Photographs of “mega projects” undertaken by Prime Minister Abiy’s Government and images with writings describing the Prosperity Party and ENDF were also among the profile pictures used by these accounts. BBC has also observed some of these accounts using photographs of female artists and models.

A significant number of members of the Oromia Region Prosperity Party Office’s “media army” use similar photographs for their accounts. BBC through its investigations has found that these similar photographs originate from accounts originating from one zone. Among these regional government structures are the West Arsi and East Bale Zones. Members of the Jimma Zone media army use images with writing saying “Jimma Zone social media digital army” in Afan Oromo and English.

This is not the first time Facebook’s parent organization Meta has taken action against Facebook accounts associated with the Ethiopian Government. When the war with Tigray broke out in 2020 (2013 EC) the parent company shut down 62 Facebook accounts, 49 pages and 26 groups for violating its policy on coordinated inauthentic behavior

The accounts, pages and groups that were shut down were sharing messages related to “Prosperity Party and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed” which it stated in a press statement on Sene 2013 EC (sometime between June 8 and July 7, 2021). Based on Meta’s investigation behind this action were individuals “with affiliations to” the Information Network Security Agency (INSA).

According to digital human rights law research Dr. Yohannes, this is not the first time the government has partook in activities which Meta classifies as “coordinated inauthentic behavior”.

In Meskerem 2012 EC (sometime between September 12 and October 11, 2019) researchers at Oxford University confirmed coordinated misleading propaganda shared through social media campaigns has been documented in at least 70 countries. Among the countries included on the list is Ethiopia.

Before the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power, fake pages were used to coordinate Facebook campaigns which were organized by government institutions according to the research. According to the research, these pages were used to provide support to the government and to attack critics.

Fig 11. The Prosperity Party which was formed four years ago, formed a government after winning the majority vote in the sixth national elections in 2021 (2014 EC).

Hired members of the “media army” provided an allowance

One source which worked for the Federal Government as a communications official for more than 15 years told BBC the use of party members for government propaganda campaigns on Facebook originated from the former ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which planned and coordinated this during its final years in power.

In 2016 (2008 EC) when opposition rose against the government the former government communications office provided training to government communications professionals.  The source explained that at the time the four parties which comprised EPRDF had differences which resulted in the plan not being properly carried out.

The current use of Facebook campaigns shares similarities with the prepared plans from 8 years ago, according to the source which adds he believes the plan prepared by the Prosperity Party and government officials have implemented the plans with “success”.

Even after Prime Minister Abiy’s government came to power and Prosperity Party was formed it was not just the implementing the plan for use of the media army for propaganda purposes that continued. Training related to social media use and system algorithms has continued to be provided within Prosperity Party structures.

Training provided to party members and communications professionals emphasizes the importance of delivering “information related to development projects within the country to the public.”

In the response by the Prosperity Party head office to BBC it said training was provided to officials and members regarding “the nature and applications of social media and how to use various applications to disseminate information to the public.”

The party said it believed, “this is a common and appropriate practice for political organizations throughout the world” explaining this conduct was a typical occurrence.

Sources told BBC individuals were hired by two bureaus in Addis Ababa city to increase followers to government and party Facebook pages, and to like, comment and share content.

The two bureaus implicated in these activities intended to increase the number of followers on their Facebook pages include the Addis Ababa city administration Youth and Sport Bureau and Public Service and Human Resources Development Bureau. BBC found that data extracted from Facebook posts of the two bureaus corroborated information provided by the sources.

Regarding this matter, BBC posed a question to the Addis Ababa city administration Youth and Sports Bureau which denied allegations that “there were individuals hired and paid” to increase engagement to the bureau’s Facebook page.

The bureau’s public relations director Ato Mehari Temesgen told BBC that the bureau provided training on social media use to youth who actively participated on the bureau’s page.

Fig 12. These accounts were opened by these two individuals which repeatedly left comments under Facebook pages belonging to the Addis Ababa city Youth and Sport Bureau and the Public Service and Human Resources Development Bureau.

Ato Mehari said, “we provide various forms of training so youth and sports fans can follow the institution’s page and like and comment on informative content from the page. It is possible among those who received training some may leave multiple comments.”

When provided a similar question, the Public Service and Human Resources Development Bureau Head Dr. Tassew Gebre said they had “no evidence” that any such acts were taking place. The head provided assurance that he would investigate the matter and provide information however he did not respond to further repeated follow-up calls from BBC.

According to information from BBC’s sources the 11 individuals “hired” to carry out these activities were active under Facebook pages belonging to both bureaus. One source who was close to the matter said they were a member of the Prosperity Party, as well as a communications professional at the woreda and sub-city levels where they worked.

The source added, “each person has between 8 and 10 Facebook accounts. They follow our page on a daily basis. They provide comments and share, they read the posted content and provide a comment which praises the work of the bureau. They take our writings and will share it on their own page.” Sources say these individuals receive payment as “members allowance” for their work.

According to data obtained by BBC on “crowdtangle” for Facebook content monitoring since the months of Hedar (November 11 - December 10, 2023) and Tahasass (December 11, 2023 - January 9, 2024), the number of accounts engaging with content on pages belonging to the two offices drastically increased. This time period is similar to when the sources said the recruits were hired. BBC has verified it is the same accounts leaving comments under the pages and these accounts have been active under the pages of both bureaus. BBC has identified 16 accounts and pages involved in these activities and affiliated with 2 individuals

Digital human rights researcher Dr. Yohannes says coordinated pro-government comments reflect “efforts to intimidate others and not freedom of expression.” He cites that this kind of activity serves to “stiffen opposition, prevent active participation from contributors, prevents freedom of expression and access to information.”


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