Who is behind the fake news campaign around Covid-19 in DR Congo?
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Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, about 30 different quotes attributed to public figures including French infectious disease expert Didier Raoult, French president Emmanuel Macron and Madagascar president Andry Rajoelina have been making the rounds on Congolese Facebook pages. But it turns out all of them were made up. The FRANCE 24 Observers team tracked down the source of these widely circulated fake quotes and discovered a 20-year-old keen to generate “a buzz”.
Many Africans or members of the African diaspora have seen the same posts popping up non-stop on their Facebook newsfeeds since March. Many reported the posts to the France 24 Observers team.
These posts always have the same format. They include one or two photos of a famous person, alongside a quote - often provocative - about the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the earliest quotes that our team came across in March was attributed to Raoult, the French epidemiologist, who supposedly called on "Africans to not take Bill Gates’ vaccine against coronavirus”. Turns out, the quote was entirely made up.
The Facebook page "B R O W N S", which has since been deleted, shared a fake quote attributed to Raoult. The FRANCE 24 Observers team investigated and found no record that the epidemiologist, who hails from Marseille, said any such thing.
In the weeks since then, lots of other fake posts, written in the same format, have also appeared on social media. One claimed that US President Donald Trump was opening an investigation into billionaire Bill Gates over the vaccine he aims to create. Another described a meeting supposedly held between French President Emmanuel Macron and Madagascar's President Andry Rajoelina to discuss Covid-Organics, a Madagascar-made herbal tea that Rajoelina says can cure the virus. Another included a fake declaration attriuted to the head of the World Health Organization endorsing Covid-Organics (the WHO has in fact advised against using such untested remedies). None of these stories are true.
Three examples of fake posts that went viral that were shared on the "V É R I T É" Facebook page. The posts were deleted May 9 but the page was still online as of that date.
At least five Facebook pages run by administrators in DR Congo
The fake posts that we identified were all shared on at least five Facebook pages with similar formats, called "V É R I T É", "Grass’d-Vérité. ", "Grass’d-Vérité 2.", "Browns-Liberté." and "B R O W N S". The last page was deleted from Facebook but the four others are still active and have between 36,000 and 150,000 followers each. They all have the same three administrators, who are based in the Democratic Republic of Congo. All of the pages were created between July 2019 and January 2020.
Numerous fact-checking outlets have called out these pages for sharing fake posts. Journalists at CongoCheck debunked a quote falsely attributed to Congolese doctor Jean-Jacques Muyembe in which he questioned Covid-Organics. AFP Factuel investigated a quote falsely attributed to WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recommending Covid-Organics.
The photos posted alongside these fake quotes are taken out of context. The post that talked about a meeting between French President Macron and Madagascar President Rajoelina is illustrated with a photo taken in March 2019 at the One Planet Summit in Kenya, more than a year before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Scroll through the images to check out the post, and the origin of each of the photos featured.
A photo supposedly showing French epidemiologist Didier Raoult in Madagascar was actually taken in August 2019 during a visit Raoult made to a research institute in Senegal.
Scroll through these photos to see the initial post and the origin of the photo.
"Our page can get up to 5,000 new followers a day”
The FRANCE 24 Observers team wanted to know who the three administrators behind the five similar pages re. We identified two of them and managed to contact one.
The administrator we contacted is a 20-year-old student at the University of Kinshasa. We decided not to reveal his identity. He created these pages with two of his friends to share, in his words, “information that’s possible… or not”. He explains:
We make up stories to get followers, like, for example, for Macron’s visit to Madagascar. Our goal is to share news so that it actually happens. For example, we wrote an item about students getting a year off in the DRC. At the time we posted it we thought it was likely to happen. [Editor’s note: The post was later dismissed by the DRC's minister of education, according to this article by AFP Fact Check].
Our strategy is to share these posts in several different groups like RDC News 24h/24 [Editor’s note: Which has 504,000 members] or Radio Okapi [Editor’s note: the open discussion forum has 300,000 members]. We give our social media users new information, which they haven’t read elsewhere. That’s why our posts are shared so much. Thanks to that, one of our pages can get up to 5,000 new followers in a day. For example, in just one month, we’ve gathered more than 60,000 followers on "V É R I T É".
The young man acknowledges fabricating quotes and says he does so “for strategic reasons.” His personal Facebook page suggests that he doesn’t believe that the Covid-19 is really affecting the DRC. He also advocates a year off for students in the DRC. These are personal views that he transforms into “news” that he shares on the pages that he administers.
This is an example of a post on the personal Facebook page of one of the administrators of the page "Vérité". He seems to be arguing for a year off for Congolese students and questions whether Covid-19 is actually affecting the DRC, even though at least 36 people have died and 863 people have been infected, according to official statistics.
This trend is not new. We found other pages, including "Falyala Wilondja", which was created in June 2019 and which uses the same method to spread fake news. For example, this page recently shared a fake quote attributed to Macron: "Any African country that doesn’t want its population to use the European vaccine against Covid-19, its citizens will no longer be able to travel to Europe.” Once again, this quote was completely made up.
It turns out that the administrator of the page "Falyala Wilondja" and the administrator of "V É R I T É" know each other. We found conversations between the two on Instagram and found a video on Youtube that showed the two singing Congolese rap in a school in Kinshasa. Even though they run their own pages independently, they seem to be trying to one up each other in terms of how much fake news they can post.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team asked the administrator of "V É R I T É" about his long-term goals and he gave a this answer:
There are a lot of cyber criminals in Africa, especially in the DRC and that scares me. There aren’t laws that punish cyber criminals. So the best way to carry out this fight is to get to know them and then trick them. When a page gets a lot of followers, cyber criminals reach out to us and suggest that we join forces with them. We want to be spies.
Amongst this flood of false information, there are a few pieces of actual news, often about what is happening in Congo. For example, this post talks about a Congolese pastor, who claimed that the Covid-19 epidemic was over. While the statement itself is false, the pastor did make that claim in a video posted online in April.
This post is one of the very few correct news items shared on "V É R I T É". Congolese pastor Walesa did say that Covid-19 was over in mid-April, without any proof for that statement.
"V É R I T É", which is by far the most active page in this network, has shared at least 37 news items about Covid-19 since its first post on April 3, generating at least 206,000 shares as of May 6. On May 9 the posts were deleted, but the page remained online.
Article written by Alexandre Capron (@alexcapron)