Fake images don’t only spread throughout social media in Western countries – this is a problem on African social networks as well. Often, a fake image will pop up time and time again, and will be used in several different African countries and in different contexts. Thanks to our Observers, we’ve spotted eight of the most common fakes.
This list was put together based on the observations of FRANCE 24 journalists who have spent several years debunking false information that spreads online. It was created with the help of a dozen Observers who live all over the African continent, from Ivory Coast to Nigeria to Morocco, and who alert our journalists to suspicious images.
1. Where was this photo of tortured prisoners taken?
This photo, which has gone viral several times, shows soldiers torturing a group of men, one of whom is hung from a bar by his arms and legs. It’s been used in posts about the Rwandan genocide, about the Ivorian post-electoral crisis, and more recently in Burundi and Ethiopia.
However, this photo was actually taken in Nigeria. The photo was first posted online in 2012 in relation to a case of alleged torture in the country’s north. Amnesty International put out a report on these allegations in 2014, which included drawings of different torture techniques based on photos like this one.
2. Where did these shocking executions take place?
Several videos showing extremely shocking executions – in which men are cut up with machetes and their remains are thrown into mass graves – have been used in different contexts, notably during clashes between Christian and Muslim militias in the Central African Republic. They also circulated on Whatsapp groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they were at times described as showing massacres in the region of South Kivu, at other times in the Nande community.
But these two videos were actually filmed in Nigeria. In the case of the first video, Amnesty International explained that the scene showed members of the jihadist group Boko Haram being executed by Nigerian soldiers. As for the second video, FRANCE 24 journalists identified that the languages spoken were Hausa and Nigerian Pidgin, both spoken in Nigeria, among other countries, though they could not identify who took part in the executions.
3. Bodies burned during a sectarian conflict? Not quite…
One of the most common hoaxes, which has spread across several countries, comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
This attempt at manipulation was debunked way back in 2011 by the site Loonwatch. It actually shows the aftermath of an explosion of a truck carrying petrol. With the jihadist group Boko Haram gaining ground, the photo was shared by the famous American blogger Pamela Gellar (known for her Islamophobic comments) who claimed it showed massacres perpetuated by the group. The hoax was then shared widely.
It was again used during the post-election crisis in Ivory Coast, with both sides using it to accuse the other of massacres, as we showed back in 2011.
This hoax knows no borders: in 2015, a Pakistani general shared the photo on Facebook, writing that “all Muslims should share these photos of their Burmese brothers being massacred”.
4. Footage of the Mpila tragedy
One of the most misused videos is no doubt one filmed in Congo-Brazaville. It was taken on March 3, 2012, when the Mpila arms factory exploded in the capital, killing 282 people and injuring an estimated 2,500 more. The video, posted to YouTube, shows dead bodies, grievously injured victims, and terrified residents running from the scene.
The video was used at least three times in 2015, in completely different contexts. First during protests in Kinshasa where it was used to illustrate “barbaric acts by general Kanyama”, the chief of police. It was then used in a video that purported to show a Boko Haram attack in Maroua in July 2015.
More surprisingly, it was also used in Congo-Brazzaville (where the images were well known, since the arms factory explosion took place there) in October 2015 to accuse president Denis Sassou Nguesso of “massacring his people” during protests against Nguesso running for president again. (He has been in office since 1997.)
5. Need a picture of a flood? Madagascar’s got you covered!
This photo has regularly surfaced in various African countries struck by floods. It shows people wading up to their chests in water.
Whether in Ghana or more recently in DR Congo, it’s been used to criticise poor water evacuation systems – a real and widespread problem which our Observers in Kinshasa, for example, told us about last December.
But this photo was actually taken in Madagascar in 2013 after the country was hit by Tropical Cyclone Haruna. It was published on the website of the NGO People Reaching People.
6. The "HIV oranges"
One of the most far-fetched hoaxes (and yet one of the most widespread, notably in the Maghreb) has to do with fruit. Several websites shared the photos below. The oranges pictured – which some said came from Gaza, others from Libya – were supposedly intercepted by Algerian customs officers who noticed they presented a reddish hue. According to these sites, the oranges were filled with HIV-contaminated blood.
However, several hoaxbusting sites have pointed out that these claims are completely ridiculous, since HIV cannot survive outside the human body at a temperature below 37 Celcius.
This hoax has regularly resurfaced since December 2014, when it started in Yemen. It briefly made a comeback last February, notably in Nigerian discussion forums.
More recently, a similar story involving bananas has been circulating in Mexico. However, this version of the hoax has not taken root on African social media.
7. An Associated Press photo gets misused
This photo has been used in the context of several conflicts in Africa since 2014. It shows a man being dragged on the ground while a soldier wearing a red beret holds a large rock above his head.
This image is well-known, since it was selected by the news agency Associated Press as one of its best photos of the year. It was taken by the AP’s Chief Photographer of Africa, Jerome Delay, in the Central African Republic. However, that did not stop the photo from being misused to illustrate the Burundi crisis in 2015 or clashes in Burkina Faso. The photo was even used in a Montreal newspaper to illustrate these clashes.
The photo was also misused in Uganda, where it was presented as being an attack on a homosexual man.
However, in the case of this photo, most Google Image search results bring up articles on the Central African Republic, which shows that the hoaxes had a limited effect.
8. The case of the man-eating snake
Snakes are a very popular subject for internet hoaxes throughout Africa. Sometimes the images show snakes that have supposedly swallowed a human, while other times they are photomontages that purport to show half-human half-snake creatures.
The most famous of these hoaxes shows a huge python that is said to have swallowed a woman. The photo is often accompanied by an explanation along the lines of “the young woman was in a hotel room with a man who turned into a snake and ate her.”
Back in 2013, the site Hoax-Slayer had found that this tall tale started in India and Indonesia. There was no proof of such an incident in either country. The site reminded readers that cases of man-eating snakes are exceedingly rare.
Beliefs in witchcraft explain in part why this type of hoax is so popular in Africa. In November 2013 in the Cameroonian city of Buéa, residents attacked a hotel because they believed a “Mboma” – a sorcerer with the ability to transform into a snake – had swallowed a girl there.
What can we learn from these examples?
By and large, the most widespread hoaxes are linked to revolts. In countries like Nigeria and DR Congo, the absence of journalists in dangerous regions leads Internet users to latch on to whatever images they can find, often using them out of context. Many recurring hoaxes are also linked to unusual (and often completely fictional) stories, which are relayed by sites whose main goal is to boost traffic.
When fake images are widely shared, the consequences are serious, because search engine algorithms will bring up the fake stories first, and the real story will get buried.
If you use Google to search for the images in examples number 3 and number 4, the first results you get are false stories. The photo from DR Congo, for example, is immediately associated to the keywords “genocide in Nigeria”, and the photo from Congo-Brazzaville is associated to the keywords “Boko Haram massacre in Maroua.”
The good news is that there are simple and easy tools that anyone can use to verify images. Check out our guide to verifying amateur images on social media.
Have you spotted a recurring hoax circulating on social media networks in Africa or elsewhere? Don’t hesitate to contact us by email (email@example.com), or through Twitter, Facebook, or Whatsapp (+33 6 30 93 41 36).