Foreign anti-vaccine disinformation spreads to West Africa
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Image: First Draft Illustration

Disinformation exports: How foreign anti-vaccine narratives reached West African communities online

Design by Guy Grimshaw and Rebecca Araujo.

Overview

Nearly 2.5 billion Covid-19 vaccines have been administered worldwide [1]. Despite this progress, significant obstacles stand in the way of ensuring global access to the vaccines. Chief among these is the lack of a sufficient supply of vaccines [2][3]. However even where supply can be met, vaccine hesitancy, driven in part by mis-and disinformation, represents a key obstacle to ensuring people are protected [4][5]. Identifying misinformation and countering it with reliable and trustworthy information will be critical to the success of Covid-19 vaccination campaigns [6]

Relatively little is known about the types and extent of vaccine mis- and disinformation in many parts of the world. This is especially true in Africa, a continent that accounts for less than 2 per cent of all Covid-19 vaccines administered [7], and where few countries benefit from dedicated misinformation monitoring projects [8]. 

In West Africa, vaccine hesitancy is a particularly worrisome issue. In an AfroBarometer survey of five West African countries from March 2021, 60 per cent of respondents said they were unlikely to try to get vaccinated [9]. Mis- and disinformation make up only one component of vaccine hesitancy [10].  Yet the dominant narratives potentially contributing to vaccine hesitancy in West Africa — and the ways they are being amplified on social media — remain unexplored.

With that in mind, First Draft’s research team monitored and mapped vaccine disinformation and narratives in the region. This report is based on that monitoring and additional investigative research. 

Through our monitoring and research, one finding stood out: Foreign narratives and conspiracy theories — initially developed and popularized in North America — are taking hold in West Africa, further eroding trust in institutions in the region. Sources operating outside West Africa have been driving these narratives. While they are being spread in part by actors employing sophisticated amplification techniques, this should not be taken as evidence of “foreign interference.” Determining the existence of “foreign interference” is a complex undertaking outside the scope of this report. Instead, this report highlights the narratives filtering through West Africa and demonstrates the ways in which they spread. 

Our findings suggest that the use of sophisticated disinformation tactics is becoming more widespread and that artificial amplification techniques are regularly being used to spread disinformation in West Africa.

The findings highlight the urgent need to combat these falsehoods moving through social media in West African countries. Left unaddressed, they have the potential to disrupt vaccination efforts in the region. 

The use of disinformation tactics to spread anti-vaccine messages underlines the need for platforms to not only focus their efforts on fact checking, but also to identify the use of specific methods to more effectively prevent harmful content from being spread. 

Key findings

Pro-Russian disinformation networks and American anti-science websites are pushing anti-vaccine content that is reaching large West African Facebook Pages and Groups. These networks are spreading social media posts and articles that contain misleading messages about Covid-19 vaccines. These messages are amplifying wider narratives that could erode trust in key actors and institutions connected to vaccines.

Networks of French disinformation websites are playing a crucial role in enabling this content to reach West African social media. These websites are artificially amplifying English-language articles by publishing translated versions. Each version features slight modifications to the title, imagery or source quoted. The resulting variety of articles increases the chance that these messages will reach diverse online communities.

North American and European conspiracy theories are reaching both Anglophone and Francophone West Africa on social media and are a key feature of online vaccine misinformation in the region. These include conspiracy theories about depopulation programs, a totalitarian, one-world government known as the New World Order, and even certain elements of QAnon, such as the idea that former US President Donald Trump was secretly fighting a corrupt political and financial establishment.

Foreign disinformation and conspiracy theories are building on pre-existing anti-vaccine tropes in the region that threaten to exacerbate fears.  These tropes typically revolve around the perceived untrustworthiness of key actors and institutions connected to vaccines. More specifically, they frame the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and Bill Gates as corrupt and ill-intended. Mistrust in institutions continues to be strongly associated with vaccine refusal in many African countries[11].

Online actors based within West Africa are equally using sophisticated techniques to spread these anti-vaccine conspiracy theories more effectively. 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. These copypasta posts were in some instances spread simultaneously on multiple platforms.

This report is divided into five sections:

Background. In this section, we examine how conspiracy theories and foreign vaccine narratives have merged and traveled across borders since the beginning of the pandemic. We explore how the combination of pre-existing anti-vaccine narratives in the region and these foreign vaccine narratives could potentially erode trust in Covid-19 vaccination campaigns in West Africa.

Methods and limitations. In this section, we outline the research methods we used to monitor online conversations related to West Africa and the limitations of the research.

Indicators of artificial amplification. In this section, we describe the techniques used by bad actors to artificially amplify their content and maximize its impact. 

Disinformation narratives. In this section, we unpack how foreign anti-vaccine messages were spread through online articles and social media posts within West African social media and how they promote wider misleading narratives that could bolster anti-vaccine sentiment in the region. For example, powerful narratives about Bill Gates and the United Nations are undermining the safety of vaccines. 

Conclusion and recommendations. In this section, we summarize the key takeaways from the research. We conclude our report by highlighting key areas that platforms and policymakers can address to reduce the prevalence of harmful anti-vaccine messaging in the region.

Background

Since the pandemic began, harmful conspiracy theories [12] initially popularized in North America have spread across borders, becoming a key feature of online vaccine conversations globally [13][14][15]. Moreover, anti-Western vaccine rhetoric stemming from pro-Russian disinformation networks has reached online communities around the world, including Eastern Europe, South America and Australia [16][17][18]. 

Journalists have heavily scrutinized the potential impact of foreign vaccine narratives on Western online audiences [19][20][21]. But little attention has been paid to the role these narratives play in polluting vaccine information ecosystems beyond North America and Western Europe. 

This lack of attention is especially striking given these narratives’ proven ability to transcend languages and borders [22]. For example, the QAnon conspiracy theory is largely embedded within the US, but has successfully reached not only English-speaking countries such as Australia and the UK, but also France, Italy, Germany and Japan, among others [23][24].

While certain narratives can spread across language communities, they tend to travel most seamlessly within them [25][26]. This leaves regions such as West Africa, which shares languages with the West, particularly susceptible to harmful Western anti-vaccine disinformation. 

We know that exposure to misinformation negatively affects an individual’s intent to get vaccinated [27]. Foreign disinformation in West Africa now threatens to magnify many pre-existing anti-vaccine narratives. This combination has the potential to play an outsized role in vaccine hesitancy. 

Long-standing negative vaccine narratives in West Africa have resulted in part from centuries of systematic exploitation [28], exacerbated by recent historical incidents. In the 1990s, for example, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer tested a drug on 200 Nigerian children without their informed consent during an epidemic of bacterial meningitis [29].  And in Uganda, HIV-positive patients were unable to access treatments despite those treatments having been developed in the country. These horrific episodes of “medical colonialism” have remained ingrained in the region’s collective psyche.

One pervasive narrative resulting from these events frames Africans as guinea pigs being used by Western countries to test new vaccines. The narrative has circulated for decades but came back to the forefront of public attention in April of last year, when two French doctors suggested coronavirus vaccine should be first tested in Africa

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. 

The meme has continued to circulate on large West African Facebook Groups ever since.

Other pre-existing anti-vaccine narratives in the region relate to the safety, efficacy and necessity of vaccines. Among them:

  • Natural remedies are superior to vaccines in preventing Covid-19
  • Covid-19 vaccines are unnecessary: only domestic elites who traveled abroad have been affected by Covid-19
  • Covid-19 vaccines can infect children with the disease
  • Vaccines can be fatal for children
  • Vaccines can cause infertility

Narratives relating to the political and financial motives of Western countries continue to dominate online conversations in the region. Disinformation that undermines the credibility of Western actors and organizations has the potential to work in tandem with these long-standing ideas and further erode trust in vaccine institutions.

With more than half of young Africans relying on social media as their primary source of news, the region finds itself particularly vulnerable to online mis- and disinformation. The persistent lack of financial resources made available to professional fact-checking organizations in Africa continues to limit the availability of reliable information. And as social media penetration levels continue to rise in many West African countries, so too does their vulnerability to disinformation campaigns.

The situation in West Africa is made worse as prominent politicians in countries such as Nigeria spread anti-vaccine misinformation. Moreover, many media outlets in the region have increasingly come under government censorship, both in direct physical threats to journalists and indirect coercive measures that include withholding advertising revenue from local commercial media . These pressures are driving some to rely on eye-grabbing and often misleading information to attract readership and generate digital advertising revenue.

And a decline in vaccine confidence could be particularly costly for West Africa countries, as the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that Covid-19 may become endemic on the continent. Understanding and countering anti-vaccine narratives is therefore important to ensure the successful rollout of not only the Covid-19 vaccines, but other future vaccines that could prevent public health crises more generally.  

Methods and limitations

Methods

To understand and effectively tackle problematic vaccine discourse, it isn’t enough to monitor and verify individual pieces of vaccine-related content. We have to understand

that individual pieces of content — posts, videos, memes — convey messages that add up and align to amplify larger narratives, which shape how we make sense of vaccines and the world.

These larger anti-vaccine narratives are particularly important to identify and counter as they can erode trust in vaccines, the actors and institutions connected to their development and provision and also in the very institutions of science [49][50][51].

For the purposes of this analysis, we refer to messages as any claim, idea or argument that is conveyed through an online publication. Online publications include, but are not limited to: media articles, blog posts and social media posts.

The NATO StratCom Center of Excellence defines narrative as “a) A cognitive process of ordering information into a structure of cause, effect and consequence b) A system of stories structured in such a way as to make meaning” [52].

In this research report, we used messages as our units of analysis in order to identify overarching narratives

To identify anti-vaccine narratives penetrating West African social media, First Draft’s research team conducted a six-month media and social media monitoring project examining vaccine-related content in the region. Facebook and Instagram data were collected primarily using CrowdTangle, a public-insights tool owned by Facebook, while Twitter data was gathered by querying the platform’s public Search API. Online media content, such as news articles, was monitored using the social listening tool NewsWhip Spike. 

The prevalence of foreign online sources and popular narratives from North America, Europe and Russia became increasingly apparent through our monitoring. We therefore chose to analyze narratives either developed and popularized outside West Africa or directly amplified by messages originating from foreign sources. The specific narratives examined in this report were selected based on the extent to which they were dominant throughout the time period of our monitoring project — from September 2020 to March 2021. 

We determined the most dominant narratives based on a review of the most interacted-with anti-vaccine posts and media articles on social media, which we collected every two weeks as part of our six-month project.

The messages included in this report were chosen based on the comparatively high level of social media interactions that the social media posts and articles pushing these messages collectively generated. 

Further investigations into the source, spread and amplification of content were performed using NewsWhip Analytics, tools from CrowdTangle’s platform, the open-source network analysis and visualization tool Gephi, and various other open-source investigation tools and techniques. Data analysis was performed using Python’s Pandas library [53].

Limitations

1) Because of ethical and privacy considerations, we did not monitor closed messaging spaces such as private Facebook Groups and WhatsApp as part of our project. These platforms play an important role in the spread of misinformation in the region [54]. Versions of messages we highlight in this report likely circulated on these platforms.

2) Relative to other regions, such as North America and Europe, CrowdTangle’s Facebook and Instagram data for West Africa is limited. The advanced Google and Facebook searches we performed to identify online communities in the region produced numerous results that were not available through CrowdTangle. The total reach and engagement of the content we identified on Facebook and Instagram is likely greater than what CrowdTangle data suggests.

3) We uncovered a variety of disinformation tactics used to spread anti-vaccine content in West Africa.  Actors’ motivations vary and can range from financial to ideological, or even simply to gain online notoriety [55]. However, attributing this behavior and the motivations behind it fell outside the scope of this report. 

Indicators of artificial amplification

Throughout our monitoring project, we identified a number of messages on social media and news sites linked to West Africa artificially amplifying disinformation narratives pervasive in the US and Europe. Some of these messages originated from pro-Russian online sources.

Identifying the agents of disinformation and demonstrating their intent fell outside the scope of this report. Nonetheless, there are different content manipulation and amplification techniques — detailed here — that we can use to identify the presence of disinformation. The following techniques were used to spread harmful narratives through West Africa [56]. 

Content modification

We found that both domestic and foreign-based actors used sophisticated amplification tactics to increase the impact of their anti-vaccine messaging on online audiences linked to West Africa. 

The messages contained in social media posts or website articles can be intentionally manipulated by multiple online sources to be reposted as “new.” We uncovered various examples of this manipulation, which involves [57]:

  1. slight modifications to title and/or imagery and/or publication date of an original article post
  2. quoting different (or no) sources to obfuscate the content’s origins 
  3.  selective and/or automated translation of a message

The resulting multiplicity of different versions of the content can enhance its “newsworthiness” and, in turn, its credibility. This modification process enables bad actors to artificially amplify false or misleading content while utilizing minimal resources. 

Networks of amplification

The manipulation, translation and syndication of articles can be undertaken by networks of amplification — groups of websites and their social media accounts. Networks of amplification typically:

i) feature a high degree of editorial alignment, i.e., they promote the same narratives [58]
ii) regularly syndicate or copy paste each other’s content [59]
iii) do so simultaneously (within a day or two) [60]
iv) produce little organic content [61]
v) usually pull content from the same few sources [62]
vi) frequently pool resources (use the same authors and translators) [63]
vii) exhibit technical indicators of common ownership such as the same IP address, a common registrant name, the same tracker management accounts, or the same digital advertising program accounts (such as Google AdSense or Amazon’s affiliate program.)

These sources can also benefit from the use of inauthentic or automated social media accounts that further amplify the content [64].

Content dissemination 

Actors use these tactics to drive their content across social media and reach their target audiences. 

Spree-posting. A Facebook-specific behavior which involves a single account posting a message or URL to two or more Groups in under a minute [65]. 

Coordinated link sharing. When multiple Facebook entities (Pages and/or user accounts within Groups) post a URL in a near-simultaneous manner [66].

Cross-platform posting involves an account or a group of accounts spreading the same message or link across two or more platforms in a very short amount of time.

Coordinated copypasta occurs when a group of accounts amplifies a message by appearing to copy and paste text and/or memes from a social media post and publish the content as new in quick succession. The message may actively recruit users to engage in the copypasta campaign by including a phrase such as “let’s make this message go viral.”

Repeated rehashing of content describes an account or a group of accounts regularly reposting a false or misleading message to adapt it to new contexts. This is done despite the fact that the content has already been fact checked and labeled.

In the next section, we analyze the most pervasive foreign vaccine-related narratives, the messages supporting these narratives and the disinformation tactics (detailed above) that were used to amplify this anti-vaccine content in online communities linked to West Africa.

Disinformation narratives

In this section, we detail the most pervasive foreign anti-vaccine narratives that spread on West Africa-related social media during our six-month monitoring and research project. We examine the ways in which messages that support these narratives are spread and explore their potential impact on vaccination efforts more broadly. 

Disinformation narrative 1: Western actors and international institutions are untrustworthy and their vaccines aren’t safe

Several misleading messages that framed the United Nations as corrupt and the “Bill Gates vaccine” as dangerous were manipulated, translated and then repeatedly spread among highly followed West African Facebook communities.

The idea that pharmaceutical companies and international development organizations are corrupt and ill-intended has become highly popular within Anglophone and Francophone communities in North America and Western Europe [67]. Most iterations of this narrative revolve around the untrustworthiness of the UN, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Gates. 

These organizations continue to be at the heart of many dominant anti-vaccine narratives in the region. This perceived distrust is used to paint the false narrative that vaccines promoted by these actors are unsafe. Long-standing false claims that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation injured children in India and Africa after using them to test vaccines, for example, remain popular on social media. Since September of last year, dozens of posts amplifying this misleading narrative have spread on West African Facebook communities. 

Message: “UN forced to admit Gates’ vaccine is causing polio outbreak in Africa”

The misleading message initially appeared on a pro-Russian disinformation website, was repurposed on a network of dozens of Anglophone and Francophone websites through title modifications and source changes, and spread on West African social media in Cameroon, Gabon, Togo, Niger and Nigeria.

In early September, anti-science conspiracy theory website 21st Century Wire quoted an Associated Press report [68], misleadingly titled “UN says new polio outbreak in Sudan caused by oral vaccine.” The article framed the UN as having been “forced to admit” that vaccines financed by Gates caused the spread of polio across Africa [69]. 

The 21st Century Wire article was then adapted and syndicated by at least 35 different outlets, including other pro-Russian websites such as Zero Hedge and Global Research [70] [71] [72]. 

Their spread largely remained confined to North America-based audiences, with the exception of a small collection of continent-wide African conspiracy theory Facebook Groups. However, a number of Francophone disinformation websites, which systematically translate and repurpose content from pro-Russian websites [73], further amplified the story.

The message was repackaged into at least three different versions, which featured slightly modified headlines and imagery. These three versions were syndicated more than 15 times; one reached Facebook Groups based in Cameroon, Gabon, Togo, Niger and Nigeria. Some of these groups boast nearly 250,000 members.

Together, versions of the message amassed a total of more than 150,000 interactions across Facebook and Twitter [74].

Message: “Gates’ Vaccine Spreads Polio Across Africa”

The spread of another misleading message related to polio vaccines and Bill Gates followed a similar pattern. This message first appeared through an article on a pro-Russian website. It was duplicated and translated by networks of French- and English-language websites before reaching Nigerian Facebook Groups.

An article titled “Gates vaccine spreads polio across Africa” was initially published in late September 2020 by NEO, a pro-Russian website, which has since been identified as directly controlled by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service [75]. 

The article was subsequently duplicated and translated by Global Research — a Canadian disinformation website that the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center describes as “deeply enmeshed in Russia’s broader disinformation and propaganda ecosystem” [76].

It was then duplicated by the Natural News disinformation network, a vast group of US-based websites that push anti-science narratives and conspiracy theories [77], as well as by a number of French pro-Russian disinformation websites [78][79]. In total, at least 26 individual links to French- and English-language versions of the article were generated.

Slight modifications to the title, imagery and sources quoted were once again made to the translated French-language version, which then spread across Facebook.

While links to these specific articles that pushed the message were not identified in West African spaces, they were shared on numerous continent-wide Pages and Groups.

Overall, more than 1,200 public Facebook Groups and Pages pushed either the message that “Gates was spreading polio across Africa” or “UN forced to admit Gates’ vaccine is causing polio outbreak in Africa” in French and English between September 8, 2020 and October 8, 2020. Many of these social media posts featured links to the articles that contained this message.

Potential harm and consequences 

Many consider the WHO-led COVAX facility initiative to be crucial for many African countries to be able to vaccinate their populations against Covid-19 [80] [81]. This narrative, by way of attacking the legitimacy of these same institutions, has the potential to increase vaccine hesitancy just as Covid-19 vaccination campaigns are being rolled out across the continent. 

Articles amplifying the narrative that Western vaccine institutions are untrustworthy and their vaccines are unsafe rarely managed to attract significant levels of engagement. But the sheer number of duplicate articles resulted in tens of thousands of shares across social media.

The abundance of different articles also increases the probability that the messages contained within them reach diverse audiences beyond North American and Western Europe. The dozens of versions of the article pushing the message “UN forced to admit Gates’ vaccine is causing polio outbreak in Africa ” spread not only on US, Canadian, Russian and French-linked Groups, but also on Brazilian, Argentine and Dutch-linked Groups. Only one version reached West African Facebook Groups. But this single version spread to numerous Groups based in multiple West African countries. 

Many of the media outlets propagating the narrative, such as NEO and Natural News, have been 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.

Disinformation narrative 2: Gates and the WHO are using vaccines to depopulate Africa

Viral messages falsely claiming that UNICEF and Gates used vaccines to poison and sterilize African populations spread across West African Facebook communities. Multiple versions of these claims were then adapted to resonate within individual West African countries.

Through the pandemic, vaccine-related conspiracy theories have become a key part of online vaccine discourse [82]. Initially associated with fringe online communities, they are now popular with larger audiences, including highly popular anti-government and natural health Groups [83].

Among these audiences, 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. These conspiracy theories all revolve around the belief that an elite cabal is seeking to control the world population. 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.

Message: “WHO offered [Andry Rajoelina] $20M to put a little toxic in their remedy”

A blog post falsely claiming that the WHO attempted to bribe the president of Madagascar and poison the country’s people with vaccines spread across dozens of highly followed West Africa-based Facebook Groups. 

In May 2020, a series of viral messages falsely claiming that Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina had withdrawn from the WHO and encouraged other African countries to follow suit circulated across West African Francophone Facebook Groups and Pages. 

These posts were followed by other false messages, which spread through these same groups, claiming that Rwandan President Paul Kagame had not only endorsed Rajoelina’s statements but had also warned of the WHO’s “poisoned [anti-coronavirus] vaccine” [84].
The anti-WHO and anti-vaccine rhetoric continued in subsequent Facebook posts suggesting West African countries should reject Western vaccines and develop their own natural medicine to fight coronavirus.

The false claim that Madagascar was “leaving” the WHO also reached Anglophone communities through a blog post. The blog post contains a false quote of Rajoelina in which he says that the WHO offered him $20 million to poison its Covid-19 remedy — a reference to “Covid-Organics,” a plant-based drink that Rajoelina championed as a cure for Covid-19 [85]. The post was referenced in Facebook Groups to assert that Madagascar had “quit” the WHO over the alleged “scandal.”

Despite originating from a WordPress blog with a limited following, the message has received more than 25,000 Facebook shares since its initial spread on May 16, 2020. Most of these occurred in February 2021. 

The blog post was spree-posted — shared on multiple Facebook Groups in a near-simultaneous manner — in languages including English, Russian, Spanish, Italian, Romanian and Arabic. English-language posts linking to the blog post spread rapidly throughout West African Facebook. Within days, the message attracted engagement on several highly followed Facebook Groups dedicated to Nigerian “news” as well as Cameroon-based Groups.

But unlike the other viral French-language posts and despite fact checks in both French and English [86] [87], the message continued to reappear on large Facebook communities, including Zambian and continent-wide Groups, for months. After its initial spread in May, it continued to be shared, peaking in December 2020 and February 2021 when it was shared 29 and 87 times respectively.

Message: “Abortion drugs found in Gates’ tetanus vaccine”

A disinformative meme initially published on a US disinformation website was repeatedly shared on Facebook and Instagram by several African groups in Nigeria and Cameroon.

Different versions of the false claim that Gates is using vaccines to render “millions of women impotent” through vaccines have circulated for years on social media [88]. Their re-emergence has coincided with the spread of false infertility claims related to Covid-19 vaccines [89].

The latest version of this message appeared in a meme with the text: “Abortion Drugs Found In Bill Gates’ Tetanus Vaccine.” The meme not only attacks the legitimacy of the tetanus vaccine, but also the Covid-19 vaccine. 

The meme first emerged on US disinformation websites before being shared by Groups and Pages based in Cameroon, Kenya and South Sudan. It also appeared in several South African Groups after being amplified by a news channel there. As of January 27, the message was posted on at least 16 separate occasions on Facebook Pages and public Groups.

Potential harm and consequences

Conspiracy theories can often be dismissed and many might never travel beyond the communities in which they originated [90]. However, the tendency of false vaccine depopulation claims to resurface and attract significant levels of engagement should not be ignored, especially when many still believe that past vaccine trials have killed African children [91].

Disinformation narrative 3: President Biden will promote the New World Order’s vaccine agenda; Trump was fighting it

Hundreds of posts that falsely suggested Trump was working to prevent ill-intended vaccination campaigns from reaching Africa were simultaneously spread across Facebook and Twitter. Baseless messages that framed Biden’s plans to promote vaccines as part of a wider conspiracy were spree-posted on dozens of West African Facebook Groups.

Those who support this conspiracy theory falsely believe that Trump wanted to derail Covid-19 vaccination efforts to prevent the realization of the New World Order. This narrative also frames Biden as a central figure in engineering this dystopian world.  

Message: “Trump vs immunization promoters in Africa”

First posted on a Nigerian Facebook Group, the message was copied and pasted at least 550 times in three days on Facebook and Twitter.

Between November 6 and November 9, 2020, around the time when many media outlets projected Biden would be the next US president, a pro-Trump message amplifying anti-vaccine rhetoric spread rapidly across West African Anglophone communities.

Alongside several QAnon references, such as “Trump vs the Pope” and “Trump vs New World Order,” the message promotes the unevidenced claim that Trump was fighting against “immunization promoters in Africa” in addition to “the Bill Gate[s] foundation” and “vaccine producers.” The message was first published on a large Nigerian news Facebook Group in text-only form, where it failed to generate any significant traction.

Two hours after its initial publication at 1 p.m. November 6, the message was copy-pasted and shared in quick succession on social media. In less than six hours, more than 120 posts containing the words “Trump vs immunization promoters in Africa” were published across Facebook and Twitter. As shown in the visualization below, the message was then spread again in two cross-platform spurts, one occurring around 6 p.m. November 6, and the other from 6 a.m. the next day.

Multiple edited versions of this initial post emerged as the message continued to spread. Many of these featured increasingly emotive and graphic imagery.

The spread of these posts on Twitter was largely driven by accounts describing themselves as “Biafran.” Biafra was a breakaway state in Nigeria whose secession resulted in a civil war that claimed the lives of more than a million people in the country [92]. Similarly on Facebook, the messages were largely confined to a network of Biafran and Nigerian Facebook Groups, as well as a few pro-Trump and pro-Israel Groups, as highlighted by the different colors in network visualization below.

A visual representation of the public Facebook Groups where the message “Trump vs immunization promoters in Africa” spread. Each node corresponds to a Facebook Group. The sizes of the nodes are relative to the number of times a Group hosted a post containing the message.

The spread of these messages showed strong signs of coordination, including copy/paste bursts and cross-platform posting. Their spread also exhibited a key indicator of inauthenticity: More than a third of all tweets (including retweets) containing the message was posted by accounts created less than six months earlier. More than a dozen of the Twitter accounts involved were created less than two weeks earlier. 


Overall, the message was posted or reposted more than 550 times across both platforms between November 6 and November 9, 2020, and generated at least 7,000 total interactions.

Message: “The Soros/Gates vaccine, the NWO?”

This misleading message first appeared on a West African Facebook Page and was spree-posted on almost 20 Groups, including some from within Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria.

US politics-related conspiracy theories were also spread in coordinated fashion among Francophone groups in West Africa. One French-language post attacked Biden, suggesting he was promoting the “Gates/Soros vaccine” in Africa as part of the plan to establish a “new world order.”

The message, initially published by a highly followed Facebook Page claiming to be Burkinese but whose location has been hidden by the owner [93], was then spree-posted on almost 20 Groups, including some linked to Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria.

Potential harm and consequences 

One of the first things Biden did upon becoming president was to rejoin the WHO, reaffirming US commitment to global health multilateralism. On February 18, 2021, US officials announced that the Biden administration would pledge $4 billion to the COVAX facility initiative [94]. 

But false narratives claiming Biden is part of a global cabal that wants to control the world’s population, combined with pre-existing conspiracy theories attacking the legitimacy of the WHO, has the potential to further erode trust in Covid-19 vaccines in West Africa. 

Moreover, the tactics used to amplify these narratives — cross-platform posting and spree-posting — reveal how West African-based Facebook Groups are politicizing Covid-19 vaccines and spreading this content in an organized fashion to erode trust in vaccines.

Conclusion and recommendations

Conclusion

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. 

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. 

Finally, actors in West Africa are using popular conspiracy theories in the US, such as QAnon, New World Order and targeted depopulation, as part of their anti-vaccine messaging. They are also using sophisticated amplification techniques to reach audiences within different West African countries, including Nigeria, Niger, Togo, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Gabon.

As social media penetration levels continue to rise in many African countries [95], so too does their vulnerability to online disinformation and influence campaigns [96][97]. Covid-19 vaccines were already set to face high levels of skepticism in the region. The anti-vaccine narratives presented in this report threaten to add to that skepticism.

Monitoring countries in other parts of the African continent fell beyond the scope of this project. Nonetheless, after investigating the spread of the messages detailed in this report, we found that these messages also reached Francophone Northern Africa, Anglophone South African and Malagasy social media communities.

Recommendations

1)  Greater emphasis must be placed on identifying problematic behavior on social media as opposed to monitoring and moderating individual pieces of content. Content moderation can reduce the visibility of harmful misinformation in the short run. But disinformation networks are resilient and adaptive. They will continue to employ sophisticated tactics to spread their harmful content. By refocusing moderation efforts on tracking suspicious behavior and implementing measures to curb bad actors’ dissemination tactics, platforms may be able to limit the reach of disinformation in the long run.  

2) Fact-checking measures from social media companies must be applied consistently across languages and regions. The consistency of Facebook’s fact-checking efforts across the platform remains unclear [98].  Among the many examples of problematic content that we recorded in this research, only a handful had undergone third-party verification. 

3) We need more proactive counter-messaging. We rely too heavily on third-party fact-checking efforts to address misinformation and reduce vaccine hesitancy. Proactive messaging specifically designed to counter these overarching ideas are needed. Multiple examples presented in this report underscore the fact that some of the most harmful vaccine-related messages may not be false or misleading in and of themselves [99]. Moreover, the complex narratives affecting people’s decisions to get a Covid-19 vaccine are generally immune to fact checks.

4) Messaging that can address deep-seated issues of trust with actors and institutions connected to vaccines is key. The political nature of the most dominant vaccine narratives on West African social media highlights the importance of rebuilding trust in vaccine institutions and depoliticizing them. We need to build bridges between health experts and institutions and vaccine-hesitant populations. Finding a way for health experts and institutions to connect with those questioning Covid-19 vaccines without validating or amplifying concerns will be a fundamental component of rebuilding

5) Facebook must provide journalists and researchers with better access to data. Access to CrowdTangle as well as the available data within the analytics platform is already limited. But in certain regions of the world such as West Africa, these limitations are even more noteworthy [100]. Better access to richer data will allow journalists and researchers to more easily study and identify mis- and disinformation. This will ultimately allow health policy/communication experts to more effectively target and counter falsehoods surrounding Covid-19 vaccines.

Rory Smith and Eric Singerman edited this report.

Endnotes 

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[100] The number of CrowdTangle’s Public Facebook Groups and Pages searchable on CrowdTangle varies based on country and region of the world. Even though we don’t know exactly the extent of databases per country, we found a large number of African Groups and Pages through our manual monitoring that didn’t appear on CrowdTangle.