Poor reporting fans damaging African backlash over vaccine testing and usage

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False media reports, based on social posts, that suggested that Africa will be a “guinea pig” for COVID-19 testing, led to a torrent of abuse against Western doctors, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, President Cyril Ramaphosa, and the comedian Trevor Noah, leaving news organisations embarrassed and apologetic.

In an article for The Media Online editor Glenda Nevill presciently wrote: “never has there been such an urgent need for proper, fact-checked reporting. With social networks adding an element of pandemonium to the pandemic with the proliferation of fake news, trusted news brands have never been more important in ensuring the public has the facts at hand.”

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla and Mandi Smallhorne write in a Daily Maverick report that three days later, News24 found itself in the midst of the pandemonium.

One of its journalists falsely reported that Bill Gates wants to test a COVID-19 vaccine in Africa. The story was based on a tweet by President Cyril Ramaphosa that linked to an interview Trevor Noah conducted with Gates. Ramaphosa tweeted “The Gates Foundation has supported our health needs for many years. They have offered assistance with innovative mass-based testing kits and research. I spoke to Bill Gates and he commended the swift and decisive action South Africa has taken on COVID-19.”

Wadvalla and Smallhorne write that both the tweet and actual interview made no mention of a vaccine. But few went to the source. The mistake was taken as fact.

Coming off the back of a racism row, where two French doctors said a potential vaccine for the coronavirus should first be tested in Africa, anger was kindled into a raging fire, erupting in a social media inferno. There was righteous anger at being the “West’s guinea pig”, conspiracy theories about Gates, and hate-filled invective directed at Gates, Ramaphosa and Noah.

Wadvalla and Smallhorne write that we live in an age of misinformation and fake news, where journalists have to be extra cautious about the content they put out. But we also live in an age of dwindling media resources, shortened news cycles, increased content output, retrenched sub-editors and specialist beat reporters.

They write that News24 wasn’t the only media outlet that got it wrong. The Saturday Star incorrectly claimed Drs Helen Rees and Jeremy Nel were leading a team, “racing to develop a vaccine”. But the story referred to the World Health Organisation’s solidarity trial, which is comparing the effectiveness of four types of treatment regimens. In another minor incident, a senior radio presenter referred to a vaccine as “treatment” – which of course, it isn’t: it’s prevention, and cannot be used to treat those already ill.

They say that globally, journalists thrust into the deep end of a specialised health beat, with scant knowledge of complex subjects, are making mistakes. Often, those mistakes reveal that, not only have they not been trained to understand the science, but they don’t understand the terminology and they don’t know what questions they need to ask.
Various research studies show that the general public relies on the media as their primary source of health information.

And, they add, in South Africa, as in many other parts of the world, health journalism is under-resourced.

Wadvalla and Smallhorne point out that excellence in political reporting, business and sport does not necessarily translate into excellence in a field like health, which demands not only an understanding of the human issues, but also a command of the health policy field, of the science and of the history and context of each individual area of health.

The coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, will dominate headlines for months to come. It’s important that journalists get it right, especially when it comes to reporting on medical trials and new research. They write that this is not just pedantry. Health reporting deals with matters of life and death – and that’s more than a cliché when it comes to topics like COVID-19. Getting it wrong can have a far-reaching impact, and not just in individual lives.

Wadvalla and Smallhorne write that the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) has collected many of these resources for journalists in an online project that also provides links to relevant science as it comes out.

An analysis by News24 of social media activity in South Africa and abroad shows the denunciation of Gates – who never mentioned testing any vaccines anywhere – started with several false Facebook posts in France, before it was imported to our shores, helped along by several influential Twitter accounts. On Saturday, a News24 story, which has since been retracted, gave the false narrative impetus.

News24‘s investigations team set out to trace the kernel of the fake news story in the wake of its apology to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

On 27 March, a Facebook post in French warned Africans not to take a vaccine “created” by Bill Gates as it was designed to “destroy Africa”, according to the Digital Forensic Research Laboratory (DFRLab). The Atlantic Council‘s DFRLab is a global group of researchers reporting on disinformation and misinformation. The DFRLab investigates disinformation networks, and publishes its findings on its medium page. Atlantic Council is a Washington-based international affairs think-tank.

The warning was attributed to a French doctor named Didier Raoult, the DFRLab reported, who is a “French physician and microbiologist specialising in infectious diseases (who) made a name for himself after claiming that the anti-malarial drug chloroquine was a cure for COVID-19”.

But Raoult’s employer denied he authored the post on his behalf and following a fact check by AFP debunking the post on 1 April, it was flagged by Facebook as containing false information. Several iterations of the post still exist.

The original post which had around 47 000 shares, was later removed. But not before it was picked up by a fringe site called EN24.news, and then retweeted by a US politician that served several terms in the US House of Representatives, Cynthia McKinney. A screenshot McKinney’s tweet with a link to a fringe news site that based its story on dozens of viral Facebook posts that warned Africans to steer clear of vaccines “created” by Bill Gates, as it was “designed to destroy” them. Facebook has since flagged some of the Facebook posts as containing false information, but this tweet was retweeted by South African influencer account, LandNoli.

It was at this point that the false narrative was first picked up by South African anonymous influencer account @LandNoli nicknamed Izwe Lethu on Twitter, that retweeted McKinney’s tweet with a link to the fake news site to its 66 000 followers on 29 March.

On Saturday 4 April, News24 published an article titled “Bill Gates confident a potential coronavirus vaccine will work in Africa, but Twitter does not think so”, based on responses to a tweet by President Cyril Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa’s tweet stated that Gates was assisting with testing and research – not vaccines – and he posted a short clip of a 22-minute interview Gates had done with The Daily Show host and South African comedian, Trevor Noah.

The responses to the tweet were excessively critical of Gates and Ramaphosa, and interpreted the content as confirmation of the conspiracy that Gates intended to test vaccines in Africa – now apparently with Ramaphosa’s help.

As Noah later pointed out on Twitter, neither he nor Gates mentioned vaccines being tested in Africa once during the entire interview.

But a deeper analysis by Jean le Roux, a research associate for the DFRLab, shows that anti-Gates sentiment was being punted by the same Twitter users for several days leading up to the News24 story, pushing many users of the app to believe that Gates really did intend to test the vaccines in Africa. Various vaccine trials have started in numerous countries around the world, but an effective vaccine is yet to be developed.

By the time Ramaphosa tweeted the clip of Noah’s interview with Gates, the anti-Gates sentiment had already gained a significant foothold on South African Twitter driven by key influencer accounts, including the Barry Roux account, as well as singer and author Ntsiki Mazwai and another well-known influencer, @LandNoli.

The analysis also shows that mentions of Gates gained traction on Twitter, 10 days before the News24 article was published, starting on 25 March with two significant spikes before 5 April.

The comments on Ramaphosa’s tweets were, seemingly, largely informed by false information tweeted about Gates in the preceding days and the News24 story based on those responses.

The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has, meanwhile, condemned as “racist” the comments by two French doctors who suggested a vaccine for the coronavirus could be tested in Africa. BBC News reports that DG Tedros Ghebreyesus said “Africa can’t and won’t be a testing ground for any vaccine”.

The doctors’ remarks during a television debate sparked outrage, and they were accused of treating Africans like “human guinea pigs”. One of them later issued an apology. At the WHO’s coronavirus briefing, Tedros became visibly angry, calling the remarks a hangover from the ‘colonial mentality’.

The French doctor has insisted he was misunderstood after sparking a storm by discussing the idea of testing a vaccine in Africa on television, says a Sunday Times report. Camille Locht, head of research at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Lille, was questioned about a shield for coronavirus using the well-known BCG vaccine for tuberculosis. “If I could be provocative, shouldn’t we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatment, no intensive care,” he said. The report says he compared this to “certain studies on Aids, where things are tested on prostitutes because it’s known that they are highly exposed to HIV”.

Former Ivory Coast football star Didier Drogba joined lawyers and a French anti-racism organisation in criticising the remarks. “It is inconceivable that we continue to accept this. Africa is not a laboratory. I strongly denounce these very serious, racist and contemptuous words,” the former Chelsea and Marseille striker said.

However, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, the head of the DRC’s national biological research institute, suggested that the country was prepared to take part in any testing of a future vaccine. “We’ve been chosen to conduct these tests. We’re candidates,” Muyembe said, suggesting that clinical trials could begin in July or August. He added that “at some point, COVID-19 will be uncontrollable”.

The French embassy in South Africa has expressed dismay at the proposal and noted that it has “provoked strong reactions”. “We are deeply shocked by these comments, that of course, do not reflect the position of the French authorities,” it is quoted as saying.

A Business Insider report notes that it said the French Government is committed to increased efforts to fight the coronavirus in Africa, “within the framework of the G7, the G20 and the European Union”. “Vulnerable countries, particularly on the African continent, need assistance in support of their health systems, research, and also in humanitarian and economic terms to reduce the impact of the crisis. What is at stake is the solidarity with vulnerable countries, as well as the need to avoid a resurgence of the epidemic after it has subsided in other countries of the world,” it added.

Full Daily Maverick report

Media Online report

Full News24 analysis

Coronavirus in Africa tracker

Full BBC News report

Full Sunday Times report

Full Business Insider report

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