Observers

As medical teams work to fight the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, local media organisations and activists are waging a second war against rumours that sow doubt about the disease and distrust of vaccines.

Many locals are suspicious of medical workers and believe the outbreak, which has killed more than 1,000 people since last August, was orchestrated by politicians. Conspiracy theories are rampant on social media, with some users rejecting the existence of Ebola, and others claiming that it is a biological weapon created to decimate the population or that medical teams are more interested in making money than in containing the disease.

The hostility has been underscored by violence toward medical workers in North Kivu province, in eastern Congo, where the outbreak has hit hardest. Treatment centers have been targeted, and a nurse and doctor were killed in recent months in attacks believed to have been carried out by local militias.

>> Read more on The Observers: Fight against Ebola in DR Congo hindered by wary local communities

"The most common theory is that Ebola doesn’t exist"

Distrust of the disease was heightened after the North Kivu cities of Beni and Butembo were excluded from voting in the presidential election in December, with authorities citing the Ebola outbreak, said our Observer Sammy Mupfuni, a journalist who co-founded the fact-checking website Congo Check. The site recently began identifying and debunking rumours surrounding Ebola.
 
Fake news spreads on popular Facebook groups, such as Véranda Mutsanga en révolution, which has nearly 200,000 members, and on WhatsApp. The messages are usually in French, Swahili, Kiswahili or Kinande, the local language.


On social media, users said they planned to burn down Ebola treatment centres and claimed that helicopters were being used to "inject the population with the disease."

The most common theory we see is that Ebola doesn’t exist, that it's just a conspiracy. Some messages accuse Ebola teams of spreading the virus by spraying it in homes and bathrooms, and others claim that the virus is being sprayed from helicopters.

Congo Check also aims to raise awareness of the disease by reminding locals that Ebola is spread by bodily fluids and that many people have been successfully treated at the medical centres, known as CTEs.


Tweets by Congo Check informing readers that Ebola is spread by bodily fluids and that 394 had been successfully treated at the medical centres, in response to rumours that Ebola teams had sprayed the virus in bathrooms and that people were sent to the centres to die.

"Those who have access to social media are considered to be the most knowledgeable”

Targeting the rumours on social media, the main source of information, is critical, said Mupfuni.

People who have access to social media are considered the most informed, and therefore the most trustworthy among family and friends. That’s why we share our fact-checking findings in popular WhatsApp and Facebook groups.

Mupfuni tweeted a photo of a member of an Ebola responder whom he said was beaten up in Butembo after locals accused the responder of "spraying the virus" in bathrooms.

Facebook, which owns Whatsapp, said in a statement that it was working to "better understand the spread of misinformation surrounding Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo" and to find a solution, according to The New Humanitarian.

"Getting citizens involved is the best way to fight the rumours"

Local activists are also going door-to-door in the hopes of raising awareness about the disease. One group, "Families united against Ebola in Butembo," launched in April with around 150 volunteers to address the concerns of families who have been affected by the outbreak.

Matina Mwanack, who founded the group, said volunteers are frequently questioned about how Ebola is transmitted and the type of financial aid being provided.
 
People want to know why the disease spreads among humans and not animals, and how medical workers are being paid and the amount of money being spent in the Ebola fight. We try to explain things in a scientific way, and tell them that the risks workers face could help justify higher salaries. 

In a post on the "Families united against Ebola in Butembo" Facebook group, one resident wrote that his family decided to get vaccinated after discussing the various fake rumours surrounding Ebola.

Organising public discussions like this can be dangerous [Editor’s note: groups working to fight Ebola have received threats from local militias], so we start first with our volunteers' families. 

The best way to fight against the rumours is to get citizens to volunteer. As soon as money is at stake, people start talking about the "Ebola business" and it undermines the credibility of the fight. People say, "No Ebola, no job," because they think that without Ebola, there’d be no economy. They believe there are people getting rich from the epidemic.

The group organises community talks and shares photos of Ebola victims on its Facebook page to show that the disease can "affect anyone," said Mwanack, who is currently completing a master's degree in public health in Brussels.

A post from the "Families united against Ebola in Butembo" Facebook group memorialising a young woman, Rosine, who died of Ebola.

The Ebola outbreak in Congo, now in its ninth month, is the second deadliest in history. More than 111,000 people in the country have already been vaccinated

>> Read more on The Observers:

Ebola centres attacked in DR Congo as conspiracy theories circulate

Ebola responders in DR Congo demand more protection after attacks

This story was written by Maëva Poulet (@maevaplt).