Anti-vax conspiracies about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines that originated on U.S. pseudoscience websites are now being shared across communities in West Africa, where vaccine hesitancy is already a major problem, according to a new six-month investigation by fact-checking group First Draft.
“Vaccination campaigns are now framed as part of wider conspiracy theories, such as the ‘New World Order,’ the ‘Great Reset’ or even strands of QAnon,” the report’s authors write.
Among the central narratives being shared on Facebook and Twitter in countries like Nigeria, Niger, Togo, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Gabon, is the baseless allegation that Bill Gates is using the COVID-19 vaccine as a proxy for de-populating the African continent or spreading abortion drugs hidden inside the vaccines.
At the same time, hundreds of posts that falsely suggested Trump was working to prevent “dangerous” vaccination campaigns from reaching Africa were simultaneously spread across Facebook and Twitter. These baseless messages also claimed that President Joe Biden’s plans to promote vaccines was part of a wider conspiracy.
“These conspiracy theories all revolve around the belief that an elite cabal is seeking to control the world population,” the authors wrote. “Popularized in North America, these conspiracy theories are making their way into English- and French-language vaccine conversations on Facebook and Twitter in several African countries.”
Among the U.S. entities pushing these narratives in West Africa is Natural News, a disinformation network that consists of a vast group of websites that push anti-science narratives and conspiracy theories, despite the network being banned from Facebook.
“Given this, it’s particularly worrying that these disinformation networks are still able to reach large Facebook communities with highly misleading content,” the report’s authors said.
The six-month investigation also found that disinformation originating in Russian disinformation networks well known to fact-checkers and disinformation experts, was also being widely shared among communities in West African countries.
While some western countries are seeking to reach 70% or 80% vaccination rates among their adult populations, Africa accounts for less than 2 percent of all COVID-19 vaccines administered to date.
And in West Africa, vaccine hesitancy is a particularly worrisome issue. In a March 2021 survey of five West African countries, conducted by Africa-based, non-partisan research network AfroBarometer, 60% of respondents said they were unlikely to try to get vaccinated.
Those hesitations can be attributed to the spread of pernicious anti-vax disinformation, and are deeply rooted in the continent’s colonial history. And they’ve been exacerbated by recent interactions with pharmaceutical companies.
In the 1990s, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer tested a drug on 200 Nigerian children without their informed consent during an epidemic of bacterial meningitis. And in Uganda, HIV-positive patients were unable to access treatments despite those treatments having been developed in the country.
These incidents remain ingrained in the region’s collective psyche, and were dredged up in April 2020, when two French doctors suggested that COVID-19 vaccines should be tested on Africans. Less than a week after these controversial comments were aired, a highly emotive, graphic meme depicting an African woman threatening a European vaccination officer with a knife went viral—spreading rapidly within Ghanian, Nigerian, South African and continent-wide Facebook Groups.
More than half of young Africans say social media is their primary news source, meaning the region is particularly vulnerable to this type of disinformation—and few countries in Africa benefit from dedicated misinformation monitoring projects.
The First Draft researchers saw a high level of sophistication in how the disinformation narratives were spread online, using techniques to avoid the measures that platforms have put in place to prevent such coordinated efforts.
These techniques include “spree-posting”—where URLs are spread in a near-simultaneous manner across multiple Facebook Groups—and “coordinated copypasta”—where multiple users copy and paste a social media post and then republish it. In some cases, these copypasta posts were spread simultaneously.
Carlotta Dotto, senior data journalist at First Draft and co-author of the report, told VICE News that it was difficult to say with any certainty whether West African countries were being intentionally targeted by specific accounts. “However those accounts did not appear to be directly linked to the original sources that published the messages,” Dotto said, adding that whether or not these campaigns were intentional “the impacts are still concerning, especially when disinformation is reaching communities and spaces where less attention and resources are paid to tackling it.”