Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

People partake in a public fitness program on a pedestrian bridge in Abuja, Nigeria, despite a 14-day lockdown and physical distance instructions, on April 7, 2020.


As a surge of social-media disinformation begins to jeopardize health efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, some African countries are reacting with a new tactic: criminal charges and threats of imprisonment for the spreaders of falsehoods.

The flood of conspiracy theories – largely on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp – is hampering a crucial campaign to expand testing for the coronavirus in South Africa, where many people are now refusing to have it done.

It has also sparked opposition to Chinese medical aid in Nigeria, led to the destruction of a virus screening centre in Ivory Coast and triggered hostility to international groups that are developing vaccines.

Story continues below advertisement

South African police, in response, have arrested eight people for disseminating false information, including a 55-year-old Cape Town man who appeared in court on Tuesday after posting a message on WhatsApp in which he urged people to refuse to be tested for the coronavirus, falsely claiming that the tests could spread the virus. Under emergency laws, he faces up to six months in prison if convicted.

In Botswana, under emergency powers legislation, a man has been charged with using WhatsApp to spread a false rumour about a death from the pandemic. In Kenya, a man was arrested for allegedly publishing false claims that the government was lying about a virus case.

Riot police try to stop protesters who ransacked a half-built makeshift hospital for COVID-19 treatment, as they say its location is too close to a local community, in Yopougon, Abidjan, Ivory Coast on April 6, 2020.


Human-rights groups have criticized the emergency regulations as excessive and dangerous. And the arrests seem to be ineffective: The disinformation has continued relentlessly, despite the criminal charges.

Much of it is fuelled by a mistrust of governments and scientists. After the arrest of the Cape Town man, Twitter was immediately filled with dozens of tweets from South Africans who insisted that his claims were correct.

But another reason for the popularity of the conspiracy theorists is their shrewd ability to tap into the underlying anger over colonial and neo-colonial interference. After centuries of outside meddling in the continent, it has been easy to convince many Africans that foreigners are again targeting them.

This led to one of the most explosive and widely spread falsehoods: the much-repeated claim that international organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are using Africa as a testing ground for a coronavirus vaccine.

Trevor Noah, the South African comedian and talk-show host, said he received death threats connected to the rumours after he interviewed Bill Gates this week – even though Mr. Gates said nothing about Africa as a vaccine testing place.

Story continues below advertisement

The African Transformation Movement, a South African political party with reported links to former president Jacob Zuma, sent a bizarre letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa this week in which it was suggested that Mr. Gates was secretly plotting to “depopulate the continent” by distributing contaminated face masks and using Africans as “guinea pigs” for a vaccine.

Similar claims were made by several popular Twitter accounts in South Africa, including an anonymous account with more than 860,000 followers.

South African health officials said this week that the falsehoods were hindering their effort to expand testing for COVID-19. Many people were reluctant to be tested and had to be begged to co-operate, they said.

The use of disinformation to turn people against the testing campaign is “destructive and criminal,” said Siviwe Gwarube, member of parliament for the opposition Democratic Alliance party.

Ryan Cummings, a director of Signal Risk, an Africa-based political and security risk consultancy, noted that the spread of disinformation has caused severe problems for health efforts in Africa in the past. Health workers who fought to contain polio outbreaks in Nigeria and the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were hampered by false rumours that they were secretly inflicting harm on people.

“Disinformation of this nature can spread faster than any virus and ends up costing lives, both of communities in dire need of medical services and the front-line workers administering health interventions,” Mr. Cummings said.

Story continues below advertisement

Because of the frequent use of encrypted messages to spread false information about issues such as the coronavirus, WhatsApp announced on Tuesday that it will be imposing limits on the forwarding of texts.

When messages have already been forwarded to a chain of five or more people, they will be marked and limited, so that they can only be sent on to individuals.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding, which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation,” the company said on its blog.

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.

In the interests of public health and safety, our coronavirus news articles are free for anyone to access. However, The Globe depends on subscription revenue to support our journalism. If you are able, please subscribe to If you are already a subscriber, thank you for your support.

Your subscription helps The Globe and Mail provide readers with critical news at a critical time. Thank you for your continued support. We also hope you will share important coronavirus news articles with your friends and family. In the interest of public health and safety, all our coronavirus news articles are free for anyone to access.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies