On November 4, 2020, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) launched a “preemptive strike” on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces — ENDF (DWTV, 2020). In response, the Federal Government of Ethiopia launched a military campaign, which is labelled as “Law Enforcement Operation,” and routed the TPLF forces, announcing on November 28, 2020 the regional capital, Mekele, was “under command of the National Defense Forces,” marking “the completion of the ENDF’s last phase.”
In the days that followed the conflict, both supporters of TPLF and ENDF used Twitter to campaign and advocate for their respective narratives. The two sides consistently used two prominent hashtags to the conflict (#Tigray) and (#Ethiopia), along with the other two trending hashtags (#EthiopiaPrevails) and (#TigrayWillPrevail). Users of these hashtags sought to rally the international community’s policy response, primarily that of the European Union and the United States, on their respective causes.
To understand the role of the Twitter campaigns on subsequent policies of the U.S. (S.Res.97–117th Congress, 2021–2022) and the European Union, I used Netlytic, a social media analysis tool (Gruzd & Kampen, 2016), to collect a total of 4,093 Tweets that used the hashtags within the last seven days of May 18, 2021. I then used two theoretical policy frameworks to guide my analysis of the data, the Social Construction of Target Populations (Schneider & Ingram 1993) and the Advocacy Coalition Framework (Sabatier & Weible, 2019).
Analysis of the most Retweeted (top 100) Tweets indicated that users of the hashtags seemed to have formed an advocacy coalition for their respective causes. They also coordinated their activities in more than trivial ways. They tried to dominate the social media and policy narrative. A frequency analysis of the most Retweeted tweets indicated that supporters of the TPLF dominated the policy narratives. Overall, the result showed that most users with the most Retweeted Tweets were TPLF Activists, followed by academicians, journalists and politicians.
Among the dominant narratives, allegations of blocking humanitarian access were the most common, followed by allegations using famine as a weapon, genocide, looting and civil war. Other common allegations included blocking media access, fascism, executions and massacre. The result also indicates that narratives of the TPLF’s activists were promoted by Twitter users that are affiliated with other governments, including the U.S., E.U., U.K., Norway, and France.
Overall it was not possible to draw a cause and effect conclusion between the social media campaigns and the subsequent U.S., E.U. policies on the conflict in Tigray. However, analysis of the result showed the official policy statements and statements by Twitter users affiliated with the E.U. and U.S. echoed or amplified similar narratives as supporters of the TPLF.
Tigray People Liberation Front- TPLF
The Tigray region in Northern Ethiopia is predominantly inhabited by Tigrinya language-speaking Ethiopians whose population constitutes 6.1% (4.49 million) (C.S.A., 2007). The TPLF began a guerilla war against the central Ethiopian government, as a liberation movement of the people in Tigray, in February 1975 (Berhe 2004, 569). In 1976, the TPLF published its manifesto and announced it aspires to establish the independent “Republic of Greater Tigray.” The TPLF borrowed the concept from “The Greater Tigray Kingdom” envisioned by the British Colonialists who occupied Eritrea in the 1940s (Haile 1986, 480).
In 1978, as the TPLF grew and allied with the Eritrean Liberation Front (EPLF), it modified the objective of the Liberation Front to “self-determination” within the Ethiopian polity. It then formed a coalition with other guerilla groups in EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front). After the fall of the Soviet-backed Ethiopian regime in 1991, the TPLF led EPRDF coalition took central power in Ethiopia (Bach, 2011). Soon after the fall of the soviet backed Ethiopian regime, Eritrea will secede from Ethiopia in 1993. The TPLF led EPRDF then established a system of “ethnic federalism,” mandated by a constitution ratified in 1994. The Constitution also included a provision (Article 39) that allowed for the secession of each ethnic state through unconditional self-determination (McCracken, 2004). The TPLF led EPRDF would then rule Ethiopia for 27 years until 2018.
The November conflict
By April 2018, an internal power struggle and a rift between TPLF and the other EPRDF coalitions (Amhara National Democratic Movement — ANDM), Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization — OPDO), and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement — SEPDM) led to change in the EPRDF leadership, which ousted the TPLF from its dominant role in the party. EPRDF elected Abiy Ahmed Ali, a member of the Oromo Democratic Party — ODP, chairman of the EPRDF and Prime Minister of Ethiopia. At the same time, the TPLF leadership retreated to its base in Mekele, Tigray. The EPRDF declared it would reform the country’s political landscape and reform the party to a new “Prosperity Party.” The TPLF opposed the proposed reforms and rejected many mediation efforts to resolve the escalating tensions (E.N.A., 2020). The rift between TPLF and the Federal Government grew as the TPLF rejected the Federal Government’s decision in June 2020 to postpone the scheduled election due to the COVID — 19 pandemic (A.P., 2020). Postponement of the election then led to further escalations and the “preemptive strike” on Northern Command of Ethiopian National Defense Forces on November 4, 2020 (DWTV, 2020).
Social media platform: Twitter
I chose Twitter as a platform to study how social media campaigns contributed to U.S. and E.U. policies on the conflict in Tigray because Twitter can serve as a “historical record of communication, news reporting, and social trends” (Raymond in Rogers 2019, p.282). Moreover, given the readily available policymakers and stakeholders on the platform, statements that policy communities post on Twitter could serve as indicators in policymaking. In this regard, Twitter can be considered an alternative social media to the mainstream media, which serves as a place for the disposition of policy elites’ expressed beliefs, policy positions, and values (Jenkins-Smith et al., 1991).
Furthermore, Twitter has readily accessible digital objects which can be used for analysis. Twitter digital objects, as user-generated data, serve to provide an essential insight into stakeholders’ and policy makers’ positions on a given issue. Analyzing Twitter hashtags, for instance, can provide insight into the policy position of the hashtag users. Hashtags also help to group content by a given topic or thematic area, serves as a rallying point for a given cause, and coordinate Twitter campaigns. Advocacy coalitions (Sabatier & Weible, 2019) often use Twitter hashtag campaigns to coordinate, promote, and socially construct their policy positions and narratives with the ultimate objective of shaping public opinion and thus influencing policymakers. On the other hand, analyzing retweets can help identify who the dominant policy elites are, analyze their policy positions, and understand their affiliations. Moreover, Twitter can also be used as a tool for disinformation, the “intentional creation and/or dissemination of false information” (Rich, 2018); and propaganda, the “intentional and systematic promotion of ideas and information that might be true (or partially true), but support a particular point of view aimed at instilling a certain attitude or response in the target audiences (Jackson, 2017), among such responses would be policy — “What governments do or don’t do” (Lasswell, Brunner & Willard 2003).
Data collection: Netlytic (netlytic.org)
To collect the data, I employed Netlytic. I collected the data on May 18, 2021. To start the collection, I instructed Netlytic to collect four samples of public tweets that mentioned four hashtags, #EthiopiaPrevails, #Ethiopia, #TigrayWillPrevail, and #Tigray. The two hashtags #Ethiopia and #Tigray were selected as keywords for the query design. The two hashtags represented parties to the November conflict, namely the Ethiopian government and the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF). I selected the other two hashtags, #EthiopiaPrevails and #TigrayWillPrevail because the hashtags were trending with the other two hashtags.
Netlytic Tweet search query provided tweets within the last seven days of May 18, 2021. Given the high volume of tweets containing the hashtags, I limited the search query in Netlytic to tweets with a minimum of 10 Retweets and ten favourites. I then exported the result to a Comma-Separated Values (CSV) file. I summarized the data into a frequency table, which indicates a total of 4,093 tweets. For the final analysis, I sorted the dataset in descending order of retweets and selected the most retweeted Tweets (top 100). Table 1 summarizes the resulting datasets.
My main focus of analysis pivoted around the hashtags used because analyzing the Hashtag frequencies can give insight into the dominant narratives, voices, and how policymakers reference these dominant voices. Hashtags also reflect the core elements of campaigns, events and policy issues around which policy advocacy groups coordinate their activities. Measuring hashtag frequencies along with the frequency of retweets can therefore be considered a key analytic measure (Rogers, 2019)
Analysis of the data was also conducted at the time of data collection as I followed a “programme, anti-programme” query design strategy. The parties to the conflict seem to have chosen their respective and competing hashtags. I considered the #Tigray and #TigrayWillPrevail hashtags as ‘programme’ keywords in this conflict because the hashtags were used by and represented advocacy groups and individuals promoting specific policy proposals. The #Ethiopia and #EthiopiaPrevails hashtags opposed the policies proposed by the advocacy groups.
For further analysis, I coded the sample of tweets with the most (top 100) retweets to categorize the Twitter users by their profession, affiliation and location. I coded the data manually by reading the biographical descriptions of the specific Twitter users and their tweets. In cases where there was no specific biography, or in cases of ambiguous biography, the user affiliation was coded as “Activist.” “Unknown” code was used for users whose professions or locations were blank. I used two categories to code the tweet content: the Tweet content’s central theme and the message against whom the tweet was directed. In the final analysis, I attempted to determine who the policy advocacy groups were, their affiliations, their locations, the narratives they promoted, and the policy options they proposed.
Profession, affiliation, and location of users with the most Retweeted tweets (top 100)
A frequency table summary of the sample data (see Table 2) indicated that about 40% of the users were activists, 18% academicians, 15% politicians, and 10% journalists. Among the activists, TPLF affiliated Kassa Haile Mariam (user name @Kuluhama) ranked first with the most Retweeted (1366) Tweet posted on May 17, 2021. From the academician group Awol Allo (user name @awolallo), who is based in London and whose biography states “Senior Lecturer in Law at Keele Uni. Fung Global Fellow at Princeton Uni. Interested in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Oromia” ranked first with the most retweeted (1067) Tweet posted on May 11, 2021.
From the politician’s group, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield (user name @USAmbUN) ranked first with the most Retweeted (1647) Tweet posted on May 14, 2021. Among the journalist’s group, Laura-Maï Gaveriaux (user name @lmgaveriaux) with Twitter biography “Freckled Reporter at Large In the French media: @le_Parisien @LesEchos @LesEchosWeekEnd Editor in Chief @_LongCourrier_ MENA & Eastern Africa” ranked first with the most retweeted (1023) Tweet posted on May 17, 2021.
Other groups included Human Rights Organizations such as Amnesty International Eastern Africa (User name @AmnestyEARO), media — The Lead CNN (user name @TheLeadCNN), “The Internet’s Observatory” N.G.O. NetBlocks (User name @netblocks), Aid organization — USAID Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (User name @USAIDSavesLives), a Washington based “Policy advisory and advocacy group” Von Pattern-Montague-York, L.C. (User name @batten_von) and a religious leader — Archbishop of London (User name @BishopAngaelos).
A significant portion of the most Retweeted tweets (43%) were affiliated with the TPLF. In comparison, 16% were affiliated with the U.S. government, 8% with the U.K., 6% with Ethiopia and 6% were affiliated with Norway. Other affiliations included E.U. (4%), France (3%), Qatar (3%), South Africa (3%), World Health organization (2%), Canada, Eritrea, Kenya and Netherlands, each with 1%. The affiliation of 2% of users could not be determined.
Allegations of Blocking Humanitarian Access
Allegations of using Famine as weapon
Allegations of looting
Allegations of blocking media access
Fascism, massacre, killings, executions
Allegations of stifling opposition
Allegations of sexual violence, rape
Calls for policy actions and sanctions
Response to the campaign
These are leftover TPLF captives who massacred innocents at #Maikadra & fled to eastern Sudan. Being prepared in #Sudan Rakuba Refugee, they enter #Ethiopia again to attack. Thanks to the #Ethiopian Defense Force smashed and captivated them all! #EthiopiaPrevails #EritreaPrevails pic.twitter.com/Uo7JS70L4s— Dejene Assefa (@dejene_2011) May 14, 2021
“Based on this experience in Tigray, I can say without hesitation that [the UN] is a morally bankrupt institution.”— Jeff Pearce (@jeffpropulsion) May 12, 2021
How the UN is Betraying Ethiopia: Lies, Intimidation, Threats — All to Help the Phony Tigray Genocide Narrativehttps://t.co/fpVGAhmSSX
Response from the Ethiopian government
Among the most Retweeted tweets, only two tweets were from the Ethiopian government. Another Tweet posted by an Eritrean government official referred to an official statement from the Ethiopian government.
A tweet posted on May 11, 2021, by the “Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia”, Abiy Ahmed Ali (User @AbiyAhmedAli) was Retweeted 635 times. The Tweet was not related to the conflict but another matter related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The GERD, Ethiopia’s hydroelectric power project on the Blue Nile, has been in diplomatic tension between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. The Blue Nile River originates from the Ethiopian highlands. It contributes to “80% of the main Nile’s flow as measured at Aswan” in Egypt (Tvedt 2010, 9). Egypt opposes the dam’s construction, and successive attempts to reach an agreement on the matter have failed. https://twitter.com/AbiyAhmedAli/status/1392059768756477957?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1392059768756477957%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_c10&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fmedium.com%2Fmedia%2Fd9b90209d4a4b824d1911315f272b18f
The result indicates that, for the data collection period, activists affiliated with the TPLF constituted the majority of the users with the most Retweeted Tweets, and dominated the social media narrative. Academicians, Journalists and politicians were among those who promoted narratives of the activists. Twitter users with the most Retweeted tweets for the data collection period were mainly affiliated with the TPLF, followed by the U.S., U.K. and Ethiopia. In terms of the location of Twitter users with the most Retweeted tweets, the majority of the Tweets were from users based in the U.S.A., followed by users with unknown locations, Ethiopia and the U.K.
Among the dominant narratives, allegations of blocking humanitarian access were the most common, followed by the use of famine as a weapon, genocide, looting and civil war (See Figure 1). Other common allegations included blocking media access, fascism, executions and massacre. The results also indicate that narratives of the TPLF’s activists were promoted by Twitter users affiliated with other governments, including the governments of the U.S.A., U.K., Norway, France and E.U.
Tweets that posted policy statements of the E.U. and U.S. were also among the most Retweeted Tweets. While it cannot be ascertained whether the TPLF Activists’ campaign led to the policy statements by the respective foreign governments, the policies and statements of officials from these foreign governments echoed and amplified the dominant narratives. On the other hand, even if some counter campaigns and Tweets stated the response of the Ethiopian government, the tweets were among the least Retweeted Tweets.
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S.Res.97–117th Congress (2021–2022): A resolution calling on the Government of Ethiopia, the Tigray People’s Liberation Fron