Study links narratives to COVID 19 vaccine disinformation in Africa


A new report from First Draft, an organisation working to check the spread of fake news says foreign narratives and conspiracy theories, contributed to COVID-19 misinformation in the West African region.

According to the report  published in June 2021, using advanced mis and dis-information strategies, the spread of fake news took a new dimension such that it undermines public trust in several recognised institutions in the region.

The report monitored ‘popular narratives’ of vaccine-related contents entering West Africa through media and social media, majorly on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram from September 2020 to March 2021.

The West African region comprises 16 countries; Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

“Through our monitoring and research, one finding stood out: Foreign narratives and conspiracy theories – initially developed and popularised in North America – are taking hold in West Africa, further eroding trust in institutions in the region,” the report reads in part.

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Since the COVID-19 outbreak, social media has been filled with unproven claims of prevention and cure that ranges from the consumption of Banana, inhaling of steams, the intake of Garlic, Lemon and even onions.

On May 7, 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) approved the use of the Sinopharm vaccine for emergency use after initial approval of Pfizer/BioNTech, Astrazeneca-SK Bio, Serum including Moderna, and COVAX.

So far, over 2.5 billion vaccines have been administered across 180 nations with 41.7 million doses administered daily, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

In Nigeria, as of June 1, 2021  1,956,598 people have received the first dose of the Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccine, amidst vaccine hesitancy among the populace.

However, based on key findings in the report, some of the false claims identified include assertions that Gates and the WHO were using vaccines to depopulate Africa; UN forced to admit that Gates-funded vaccine was causing polio outbreak in Africa; Western actors and international institutions are untrustworthy and their vaccines are not safe.

The findings in this report show how North American and European conspiracy theories and content from pro-Russian disinformation networks are moving into West Africa. Conspiracy theories and misleading claims around vaccines from abroad are commingling with pre-existing anti-Western vaccine narratives in the region, further polluting its information ecosystem.

The report authored by Carlotta Dotto and Seb Cubbon also noted that the French disinformation networks are using “manipulation and artificial amplification techniques to enable messages stemming from pro-Russian sources to reach Francophone West African communities. These messages are designed to erode trust in key actors and institutions connected to vaccines, such as Bill Gates, the WHO and the UN.”

The reports recommended  that the greater emphasis should be to identify “problematic behaviour on social media as against monitoring, and moderating individual pieces of content.”

Social Media firms were advised to deploy fact-checking measures, and most importantly, the measures should be applied regularly across languages and regions.

Part of the recommendations is to also design proactive messages that could counter wrong narratives, ideas that promote vaccine hesitancy rather than waiting for third-party to fact-check the misinformation.

The report further suggested “special messages that could address deep-seated issues of trust,” such that health experts, government institutions and those against the COVID-19 vaccinations could reach a common front on the vaccine.

And lastly, according to the research outcome, there is a need for Facebook to provide journalists and researchers with better access to data to enable easy and deeper study on both mis and dis-information.

“This will ultimately allow health policy or communication experts to more effectively target and counter falsehoods surrounding Covid-19 vaccines.”

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