Letter from Ethiopia

For Addis Ababa, hydropower is the future. Downriver, there’s a lot to lose.

"It's better to kill us first," says Olikoro, a Mursi tribesman, naked apart from the piece of cloth slung over his shoulder. An AK-47 rests by
his side. He is talking about the Gibe III dam, the latest in a series being built along the Omo River in south-western Ethiopia.

In Addis Ababa, the capital, the dam is considered essential for progress. But in the Omo Valley, far downstream of the dam's planned location, people depend on the river that begins in Ethiopia's emerald highlands, dropping through steep gorges before twisting towards Lake Turkana on the border with Kenya. Fifteen tribal groups depend on the seasonal floods to nourish their crops of maize and sorghum, and to provide grazing for their cattle. Gibe III will affect half a million lives. "If the dam is built, we will die," is how Olikoro puts it.

Yet along the Omo River, many of the people I meet don't even know that a dam is being built. "The government has no interest in these people," says Terri Hathaway, of the environmental organisation International Rivers. "The fact that many wander around wearing few clothes is an embarrassment to officials." When the government began building the dam, environmental impact assessment papers were prepared. However, little mention was made of the people living downstream.

Ethiopia needs electrical power if it is to develop quickly. At a cost of $1.7bn, Gibe III will be the country's biggest-ever infrastructure investment and one of the world's largest dams. Gibe I and II have already been built; IV and V are planned. They will allow expansion of the national grid and should stop the power shortages that have hampered manufacturing output. Ethiopia has few exploitable natural resources, but its river basins and high central mountains have huge potential for hydro­power. Energy can be exported to neighbouring Kenya and Sudan.

“Anyone opposed to the dams should suggest alternative solutions to creating vast amounts of energy to feed the fastest-growing non-oil economy in Africa," says Gail Warden, an official at the Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi.

But, in the short term, the extra power will mostly benefit those in the cities. The communities living along the Omo will still have no electricity. "We know the power is not for us," Olibisini, a Mursi elder, tells me. "We would prefer the river." Yet the government maintains that local communities stand to gain over time. "Electricity is essential for rural transformation, providing the basis for businesses in small towns and mechanised agriculture," says the energy minister, Alemayehu Tegenu. "Children need light for studying. We have identified 6,000 rural towns and villages in an ambitious rural electrification plan, penetrating half the country within five years."

These days, it seems as though everyone wants a piece of the Omo. Missionaries pour in, as do tourists in 4x4s. Recently formed national parks along the river limit the space for crops and grazing, and the area is being explored for oil. The tribes already fight over increasingly scarce water and land - but the dam could plunge them into more serious conflict. Weapons, which continuously flood over the border from Sudan, are worn like handbags.

Gibe III is more than just a problem in Ethiopia: its aftermath will stretch to Kenya. Approximately 300,000 Kenyans rely on Lake Turkana for their livelihood, catching tilapia, Nile perch and catfish. Reduced water flow will cause the lake to shrink and become saltier, destroying its ecosystem.

Wash away

The Ethiopian government has promised an annual ten-day artificial flood to help the farmers. But experts doubt this will fix the problem. "The natural flood builds slowly, rising and falling over several months, depositing nutritious silt all the time and letting the moisture sink in deep," explains David Turton, an anthropologist specialising in Mursi culture. "It's difficult to believe that ten days will be enough. It will act like a flash flood, washing away the silt and causing erosion."

The government insists that big, natural floods are damaging. But Ashote, who belongs to the Dassenech tribe, disagrees. "Big floods are celebrated," he tells me. "We just move to higher land when the floods come."

Last year's flood was not big, and even though my visit is during harvest time, cultivation sites along the river lie empty. Many people are hungry, selling their cows to buy grain or living on blood and milk. "What you see is the result of a low flood, a foretaste of what is to come if the dam is constructed," warns Will Tate, an Addis Ababa-based expert in displacement. "In the future, there will be starvation, economic loss and death."

Irrigation schemes have been proposed, but the idea makes Shoro, of the tiny Kara tribe, laugh. "We have so much experience of the government promising us things but never seeing them," she says. Food aid has also been pledged. "We don't want relief, we want food made with our own hands."

The dam's critics are urging financial institutions not to fund the project. The European Investment and African Development Banks are carrying out studies on its impact. Some still hope that the project can be stopped, but Turton says it is too late. Now, he says: "The crucial thing is for donors to make a condition of real compensation for the people downstream. They should be the main beneficiaries."

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.