Addis Ababa –– Forty-one days had passed since Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was seen in public. In the days after his last public appearance on state-run Ethiopian Television, activists and journalists turned to social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, first to speculate about his frail appearance, and later to inform the public about his health, the hospital where he was being treated, the kind and the cause of his ailment, and even his widely rumored “death.”
If Twitter trended in East Africa, Meles Zenawi’s name would have been the most trending-topic for weeks uninterrupted. But although his name was the most tweeted news about Ethiopia, and most sought after topic on Google search, the people of Ethiopia still don’t know, six weeks later; where their country’s leader is, what happened to him, and whether Meles Zenawi is dead or alive.
On Wednesday, Aug.1, 2012, a day after opposition outfit, ESAT pronounced Zenawi dead –thereby resurrecting the social media fueled speculations about his sickness – many hoped Bereket Simon , a government spokesman would offer some hints of Zenawi’s whereabouts, but, no, he declined to give any details beyond repeating his open-ended remarks from July 19.
This has set further speculations in motion as Ethiopians turned to social media demanding, “if Meles Zenawi is in good condition and recuperating, bring him on television, prove it.” Others were far more blunt: “show us Meles or his coffin.” So, amid all the confusion and hysteria, with satirists like Brown Condor blog’s Teddy Fikre already punk-ing website editors alike, who should you be following for reliable information on the premier’s health and whereabouts? The government media? Exiled or diaspora-based media? Or the social media?
In the last six weeks since Zenawi’s disappearance, a deliberately deprived local media in Ethiopia had generated a cascade of news on his whereabouts. After failing, once, twice, and three times, limitations abound, it has become increasingly difficult to trust or depend on it as a reliable source of information.
Before the dust settles on Zenawi’s health troubles, I found it enticing to reflect on the wider significance of this saga on the endemic problems of Ethiopia journalism. I have found no better summary of this limbo than Mesfin Negash ’s recent tweet.
“The fate of Meles carries a heavy price for [Ethiopian] media asserting his status, credibility on balance,” said Mesfin in a message copied to The Reporter, Addis Fortune, and ESAT TV.
So, whom should we trust?
Laying out the theoretical foundations for a trustworthiness system, scholar and practitioner Patrick Meier quoting from a research study by Panagiotis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj, wrote:
Our concept of trustworthiness comes from the epistemology of knowledge. When we believe that some piece of information is trustworthy (e.g., true, or mostly true), we do so for intrinsic and/or extrinsic reasons. Intrinsic reasons are those that we acknowledge because they agree with our own prior experience or belief.
Extrinsic reasons are those that we accept because we trust the conveyor of the information. If we have limited knowledge about the conveyor of information, we look for combinations of independent sources for corroboration (e.g., we employ “triangulation” of the information paths).
In our efforts to automate the process of determining reasons that support the information received, we define as trustworthiness, as information that is deemed reliable enough (i.e., with some degree of probability) to justify action by the receiver in the future. In other words, trustworthiness is observable through actions.
It looks like the PM Meles Zenawi would not come out anytime soon to disprove all the speculations about his whereabouts and well-being. If trustworthiness cannot be observable through actions, according to the above theory of extrinsic reasons, you can look for a combination of independent sources and employ “triangulation” of the information paths. While it is sensible to look for rumors and speculations on Twitter and Facebook, I suggest paying closer attentions to the following list of social media accounts and media outlets.
There is a general belief that “trustworthiness” has some natural buoyancy on social media, particularly on Twitter, where truth “floats to the top.” Here are the top twelve people you should already be following:
*On Facebook pay attention to the posts of Jawar Mohammed
For in-depth analysis and get a broader perspective on the ensuing saga and what Ethiopia might look like post-Meles, give a due attention for the following media outlets.
Wherever you turn for information or whom you choose to follow, always remember to vet every information, and source, carefully.
*Endalkachew is a lecturer at Arba Minch University in Ethiopia. His areas of research include new media theory, video games and the concept of media. The above post first appeared on his personal blog, where he writes frequent commentary on issues of the new/old media and their impact on Ethiopian politics, education and other social issues, cross-posted here with permission from the author.