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Ethiopia’s Social Media: Bridging divides or deepening chasms? Exploring the ochlocracy and its unintended consequences

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By: Theodros Tadesse
As Ethiopia continues its digital journey, the nation’s social media landscape has taken an unforeseen turn. What was once seen as a means to connect and engage has evolved into an alarming phenomenon: social media polarization. This shift has inadvertently turned Ethiopia’s digital sphere into an ochlocracy, where mob rule prevails, and reasoned discourse seems increasingly elusive. In this article, we explore the ramifications of this polarization and the negative consequences it brings to the Ethiopian society.
Polarization Amidst Digital Growth
At the start of 2023, Ethiopia had 20.86 million internet users, marking an internet penetration rate of 16.7 percent. Among these users, 6.40 million were active on social media platforms, constituting 5.1 percent of the total population according to Datareportal global digital insights. While this digital growth is remarkable, it has coincided with a concerning rise in polarization.
The Ochlocratic Transformation
Ethnic Polarization: Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic landscape often translates into ethnocentric discussions on social media. This has stoked inter-ethnic tensions and contributed to mistrust among communities.
Echo Chambers: Users increasingly find themselves trapped in echo chambers, where algorithms curate content that aligns with their existing beliefs. This phenomenon discourages diverse perspectives and fosters confirmation bias.
Misinformation and Disinformation: False information, whether intentional or accidental, spreads rapidly on social media, sowing discord and contributing to violence and distrust among communities.
The Unsettling Ochlocracy
The polarization on Ethiopian social media platforms has given rise to an ochlocracy:
Mob Mentality: Civil discourse often devolves into bitter exchanges, personal attacks, and name-calling. Rational discussions are replaced by emotional outbursts, mirroring the characteristics of ochlocratic systems.
Cancel Culture:The majority on social media can swiftly mobilize to silence or “cancel” individuals or groups expressing dissenting views, stifling free expression and open debate.
Fear of Repression: The fear of facing online backlash leads many Ethiopians to self-censor their opinions, stifling the diversity of voices necessary for a robust democratic society.
Negative Consequences Loom
The ochlocracy on Ethiopian social media platforms has far-reaching negative consequences for both individuals and society:
Political Instability: Social media polarization has exacerbated political tensions, contributing to periods of instability in Ethiopia, and hindering the pursuit of peaceful resolutions and national unity.
Ethnically Motivated Violence: The proliferation of divisive content on social media has been directly linked to instances of ethnic violence, deepening divisions within the nation.
Trust Erosion: Polarization corrodes trust between different ethnic and political groups, making it increasingly challenging to find common ground and build a cohesive national identity.
Economic Implications: Ethiopia’s polarized social media image may deter foreign investment and economic development, potentially hampering the nation’s growth.
Ethiopia’s digital landscape is at a crossroads, where the unintended consequences of social media polarization have brought about an ochlocracy. To address this issue, a collective effort from individuals, social media platforms, and policymakers is essential. Promoting tolerance, critical thinking, and media literacy can help Ethiopia reclaim the positive potential of social media while mitigating its negative effects. In doing so, the nation can strive toward a more unified, peaceful, and prosperous future in the digital age.

The writer can be reached via theodrostaddese@gmail.com

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