Zimbabwe has a double whammy of diseases: home to one of the world’s steepest HIV epidemics—1.3 million people are living with HIV, and about 12.7% of adults aged 15 to 49 are HIV positive—it will probably get quite a hit from COVID-19. In this distress, something is flourishing. That is: digital human chat-bots that sweep Zimbabwe’s internet chatrooms to boost dubious claims of medical therapies or “predictions” by local, ultra-wealthy evangelical Christian prophets.
This phenomenon gained prominence in spring 2018, when Walter Magaya, Zimbabwe’s most charismatic evangelical prophet, announced to millions of his followers that he had developed a drug capsule that cures HIV and cancer in 14 days. He said he has tested his concoction on “patients,” outside clinical approval. He labelled his “intervention” Aguma. Amidst the outrage of his claims—over fears he could imperil his followers to abandon lifesaving HIV antiretroviral drugs or condoms—the most concerning aspect was an emergence of arguably paid, superbly coordinated digital chat-bots and trolls on Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook that seemed to be programmed ahead, and in seconds quickly sprung to endorse the so-called HIV “cure.”
The medical propaganda bots and trolls follow a curious pattern, says Pedzisai Ruhanya, Zimbabwe’s most-known rights activist, who holds a Ph.D. in public communications. As soon as dubious medical “vaccines” are announced by a prophet, the trolls swiftly jump out of internet blocks to endorse them. New Twitter accounts with deceptive avatars are registered in under five minutes, then mass disruption begins. Critical chat threads by legitimate doctors or epidemiologists are spammed, and eventually slowed, with a barrage of irritating hyperlinks. Or they are driven off-topic by volleys of disingenuous interjections, fanatic swearing, and insults.
Some of the bots are probably volunteers—religious fanatics willing to give their time to prophets for free. However, in Zimbabwe, there is growing suspicion that some of them are paid by their fabulously wealthy religious leaders to support all sorts of charlatan medical claims, Ruhanya says. The economics of this belief are straightforward: Government statistics show that, as of 2014, 95% of the population had no formal employment and survived as street hawkers or other informal workers. The $80 a month that is rumored to be the going rate for internet trolls’ work would be attractive, as happens with better-paid social-media trolls in other African nations like Egypt. A highly internet-connected but financially desperate population makes Zimbabwe fertile ground for the organized spread of medical disinformation in support of religious purveyors.
“Hence, the trolls’ range of methods is widening,” says Yasin Kakande, a TED Global Fellow who studies religion and disinformation in Zimbabwe. “As social media technologies expand, digital chat-bots deployed to support claims of fake cures are a lucrative money-making scam for purveyors of fake medicines and patents. It adds up. Human or AI chat-bots are crucial sources of propaganda to drive sales for fake medicine trials.”
Of course, in the end, Magaya, the charismatic preacher-prophet under scrutiny, was overwhelmed by public rebuke from diplomats based in Zimbabwe, furious doctors, and the local UNAIDS office. He subsequently apologized for hyping his dubious HIV therapy, was fined $700 by judges, and police raided his church to confiscate samples of his Aguma HIV “cure,” says Energy Mutodi, Ph.D., Zimbabwe’s deputy information minister.
The trend has not declined at all. Now, today, amid a scurry to contain the rise of COVID-19 infections in Zimbabwe, a country with a ramshackle public health care system, one of Zimbabwe’s wealthiest Christian prophets, who also commands millions of followers, Emmanuel Makandiwa, touched off a storm when on March 22, a state-owned newspaper editor splashed a story that claimed the prophet predicted the onset of COVID-19 in a sermon on Jan. 11, 2015, and then repeated it in 2016 and 2017, heralding a strange creature that “emerged from the sea.”
“This is rubbish. I can’t believe that a national paper would publish this nonsense,” fumed Hopewell Chin’ono, a Harvard Nieman Global Health Reporting Fellow and Zimbabwean filmmaker behind State of Mind, a film on the country’s mental health crisis.
As is characteristic to Zimbabwe’s fanatic religious internet trolls, this time, in seconds, hundreds of seemingly standby bots and trolls went full steam on Zimbabwe’s Twitter and Facebook chat boards to defend, spread, and boost the hoax medical-prediction claims. Debate from credible local scientists was muddled by internet troll brigades, who hurled insults: “You are faithless academics. There is God in heaven, he uses people to foretell.” Matters got scandalous when the editor of the state newspaper that printed the prophet’s COVID-19 “prediction” was outed as holding a seat on the prophet’s church-media task force. “You used your position as editor of a public newspaper to publicize an unscientific proposition, when scientific ways to contain the COVID-19 pandemic are abundant,” said Pedzisai Ruhanya, the activist, publicly cornering the editor and demanding an explanation.
“The editor has been spoken to and [has] taken counsel well. It won’t happen again,” intervened Nick Mangwana, the spokesperson of Zimbabwe’s information ministry, which commands all state publications.
“The amount of fake news flying around is unbelievable. The rumor mill is at full blast. People are panicking of COVID-19,” says Thabisa Sibanda, a Zimbabwe-born clinical-trial specialist and health researcher in Melbourne, Australia. “I pushed back in 2018, when [Magaya] tried to bring back his Aguma [AIDS “cure”]. I will push back whenever some ignorant snake-oil salesman turns up any unproven therapy. Medicines are licensed through clinical trials, not press articles.”
The damage to Zimbabwe’s public health could already be underway. Spurred by internet chat-bots, some desperate citizens vowed to abandon their lifesaving antiretroviral HIV pills, convinced a “prophet’s cure” would make a fine replacement. Of the millions living with HIV in Zimbabwe, over 130,000 patients have HIV that has become resistant to currently available antiretroviral drugs, notes the World Health Organization in its Global Action Plan on HIV Drug Resistance July 2018 progress report. Sadly, Zimbabwe is among countries that are on WHO’s watch list of countries with a high prevalence of HIV drug resistance, at over 10% of HIV patients starting antiretroviral therapy for the first time.
Religious prophets and their internet chat-bots are fueling HIV medication stoppages in Zimbabwe, says the Zimbabwe National Network of People Living with HIV (ZNNP+) chairperson, Sebastian Chinaire. “Our number-one enemy towards ending AIDS by 2030 remains prophets and faith healers who lie to our members that they should stop taking ART drugs, as they would have been healed.”
“Such malicious claims cause an existential danger,” states the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, which threatened to file a lawsuit against the HIV “cure” prophet.