How Religious Facebook Page Amplified COVID-19 Disinformation in Nigeria

Zainab Sanni

Shayo is a fierce anti-vaxxer who has used his WhatsApp status to campaign vigorously against COVID-19 protocols and in recent times, the COVID-19 vaccine. The middle aged young man says COVID-19 is a disease planted by Bill Gates and the United Nation to destabilize the church, adding that he has concerns about the content of the vaccine and its capacity to change the human system. 

Shayo also stated his firm belief in the power of prayers to cure the covid-19 disease. This position represents that of many other Nigerian Christians as a random sampling of opinions by this reporter in Bodija market, Ibadan, Oyo State revealed. Eight out of ten respondents noted that they believe Bill Gates and the United Nations were linked to the covid-19 disease. These same respondents affirm that they think the covid-19 vaccine can turn humans into vampires. 

 Nine out ten people also confirmed their belief that prayers can cure the covid-19 disease. 

Earlier, an April 2020 NOI Poll Survey which sought to ascertain the public’s perception of the coronavirus pandemic and the response of the Nigerian showed that 42% of respondents highlighted their belief in God as the reason they were immune to the virus. 

 

UNDERSTANDING HOW MANY NIGERIAN CHRISTIANS REACHED THIS CONCLUSION

After months of observation, our reporter engaged Shayo, the anti-vaxxer and he insists that his position on COVID-19 and the vaccine was reached via conclusions from independent research and his vast knowledge of public health diseases.

Following an interview with our reporter, he however admitted to having gotten some information from a Facebook page, Church Channels. 

Church Channels is an online Facebook group with over 30,000 likes and 53,000 followers. A careful study of posts made on the group in the last two years shows that it shares content from various Christian denominations but with more catholic content. 

At the start of the pandemic, the platform merely shared covid-19 news update but from April 2020, its covid-19 posts began to suggest that the pandemic could be a scam, that prayers can cure the pandemic and that the cure for covid-19 had been found by religious leaders.

ANALYSING THE MISINFORMATION AND DISINFORMATION AVAILABLE ON CHURCH CHANNELS

On July 14, 2020, church channels shared a 27 minutes clip of the pastor of the Household of God Church International Ministries Reverend Chris Okotie claiming that the COVID-19 pandemic was part of a grand conspiracy theory, with the involvement of Satan. 

 

Okotie in the video described the COVID-19 vaccine as a “red herring” meant to disguise the intentions that could cause death on a large scale. The religious leader quoted the scripture to back his claims that Bill Gates and the United Nations manufactured the pandemic to stop the people of God from congregating together. One of the claims made in this video was that the vaccine will turn people into vampires and this is a position that has also gained popular acceptance among Christian anti-vaxxers like Shayo.

This post on Church Channels, received over 99 shares –the largest number of shares out of over 40 posts checked by the reporter-.

 

Several fact-checking platforms have debunked the claims made by Reverend Okotie. The fact-checks reached a conclusion that information made available by the World Health Organisation helps with the understanding that vaccines work in training to help the body’s natural defense, to fight any targeted virus or bacteria.

A fact-check of this claim can be found here and here 

 

OTHER POSTS SHARED BY THE PLATFORM ARE AS FOLLOWS: 

From April 2020-July 2020, Church Channels shared posts claiming that prayers could cure the pandemic or that a cure had been found for the pandemic. On April 30, a post on the platform readNIGERIAN CATHOLIC MONKS DEVELOP “CVD PLUS” FOR THE TREATMENT OF COVID-19” 

Also on May 6, 2020. another post on the same platform claim that the Anambra Traditional Medicine Board had found a cure for COVID-19 and on July 7, 2020, the platform claimed a christian denomination, The Lord’s Chosen Charismatic Revival Church had anihilated COVID-19 in South Africa. 

 

CONCLUSION

All the Church channels posts encouraging Nigerians to turn to prayer for covid-19 cures and declaring it a scam were made between April-July 2020 with a recurring call for the federal government to reopen churches. 

The Nigerian government had in March 2020 announced a covid-19 lockdown which included a ban on public gatherings that affected religious gatherings. The government announced that churches could reopen in June 2020 but the Lagos State –the country’s commercial hub and epicenter for the pandemic- government did not allow churches to reopen until July.

It was also within this period that many religious leaders shared COVID-19 disinformation that went viral. Two examples that readily come to mind are Pastor Chris Oyakhilome of Loveworld Incoporated also known as Christ Embassy and Bishop David Oyedepo, the founder of Living Faith Tabernacle

Pastor Oyakhilome in videos that surfaced online on April 6, 2020, a week after the total lockdown commenced, said 5G towers which were being installed are designed to weaken humans’ immune system and allow an attack from the coronavirus disease. He added that the purpose of the COVID-19 lockdown was to enable the government to install more 5G towers. 

Bishop David Oyedepo, the founder of Living Faith Tabernacle remains a known critic of covid-19 and the vaccine but his first anti-covid statement available online was published by a news platform in June 2020 and the statement condemned the continuous closure of churches.

The cleric was quoted as saying that COVID-19 has suddenly become an anti-church in a sermon with the title “Breaking Invisible Barrier.” and on June 28, 2020, the cleric would also claim that he had healed 114 COVID-19 cases. 

Shayo, the Public health expert, isn’t ready to take the COVID-19 vaccine after continued interactions with the Facebook page, Church Channels. He is also an ardent follower of Pastor Chris Oyakhilome. Like him, many other Christians respondents indicated an unwillingness to take the vaccine owing to support for the position of some or all of these religious leaders and in some cases, information gotten from the posts on Church Channels

But research have shown that the various positions of these religious leaders and other covid-19 prayer claims and miraculous cure are either UNVERIFIED or FALSE .

 

This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), and Africa Uncensored.

 

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