By Kemi BUSARI
ON March 30, 2021 a former Nigerian Minister announced on Twitter he had taken the COVID-19 vaccine. Strange news! For over a year since the virus was first detected in Nigeria, his name, Femi Fani-Kayode rang a deterrent bell of anti-vaccination.
Apart from his many political jabs against the ruling party, fraud allegations and their resultant court cases, Mr Fani-Kayode had before that date, played a leading role in the league of COVID-19 vaccination opposers and confronters.
At one time, he described the vaccine as a ploy to create a new world order, at another he tagged vaccination an exercise that would result in deaths of millions. To further dissuade his followers, he would tweet unconfirmed information and conspiracy theories about the virus.
A regular reference for journalists, Mr Fani-Kayode was once described by a fact-checker as one who makes “bogus statements, capitalising on his large social media followership to spur the spread of disinformation and misinformation.”
All reports on his conversion (those encountered in the course of research for this report) made references to his earlier comments on the virus but none made pragmatic efforts in measuring the former minister’s previous disparaging comments on his followers.
On Twitter, the announcement was greeted with mixed reactions. To some, it was only a matter of time, they knew all along he would be vaccinated for travel access. To others, mostly ones who refused to be converted alongside him, another soldier in the fight against vaccination had been lost. A few questioned his advertent mislead of many followers.
The numbers before conversion
One of the first notable anti-vaccination tweets by Mr Fani-Kayode came up on March 29, 2020, when he claimed that the virus was a ploy to create a new world order and get United States President, Donald Trump out of power. Elections in the US was about seven months away by then.
“One of the many objectives of the Illuminati & those that are behind the coronavirus pandemic & the emergence of a New World Order is to get @realDonaldTrump out of power in this year’s pres. election by sparking off a massive recession & crashing the American &world economy,” he tweeted.
The tweet as of Monday, June 14 had garnered 6,904 retweets, likes and comments and thousands of duplication across many platforms. Some fact-checking efforts were deployed to counter these claims but not long enough, Mr Fani-Kayode released two more fearsome tweets about COVID-19 vaccines.
On April 30, he warned Nigerians not to take vaccines which by then were in the trial stages. In doing so, he made three false claims. First, that vaccination would result in millions of deaths, secondly, that Nigeria was about to enact a law to make vaccination compulsory for all, and thirdly, that the vaccines are meant to depopulate the world.
The first of these three claims conform with the popular misconstrued comment of Robert Young, an alternative medicine practitioner, who at a meeting of the conspiracy theory group said that vaccination is chemical warfare to depopulate the world. The video was widely shared by many but a fact-check revealed that the comment was made earlier in 2019, before the detection of COVID-19, in respect of the different vaccines given to children in the first six years. Despite the fact-checking efforts, Mr Fani-Kayode still shared the video in January 2021.
Two days later, on May 2, he tweeted again, “@WHO are set to begin Covid 19 vaccine trials in our country. EVIL! Not only have our people been turned into Guinea pigs to test Gates’ killer vaccine but our leaders are also passing a law that will make the use of that evil vaccine compulsory. What a mess! I weep for Nigeria.”
Some of his tweets may, at this period (with multiple vaccines roll out in many countries) come as laughable, but they were sacred voices of caution when they were made. They were tweeted when a large part of Nigeria was on lockdown enforced to curtail the effect of the virus.
The lockdown notwithstanding, over 200, including Abba Kyari, the then Chief of Staff to the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, had died of the virus; confirmed cases were in total of thousands; patients were treated in isolation centres with close monitoring; worse still, researches on the virus had not reached advanced stages, hence, conspiracy theories held sway. In short, it was a time of panic and tweets by Mr Fani-Kayode readily reinforce people’s fears and biases.
How then did a panic monger convert?
The conversion and the dangers inherent in peddling falsehood
Against the nature of his comments, Mr Fani-Kayode announced on March 30, 2021, he had taken a jab. “Despite my initially strong reservations I bowed to sound logic and superior reasoning and took my Covid 19 vaccine today,” he wrote in a thread of tweets.
He went further to explain the ‘sound logic’ and ‘superior reasoning’ to include persuasions from his political associates and the fact that his hero, Donald Trump, had taken it, despite initial opposing stance.
As of the morning of Monday, June 14, his announcement tweets had a total of 1, 173 likes, comments and retweets a less than 10 per cent faction of interaction when compared to four of his falsehood spreading tweets examined in this piece.
This confirms the concerns of some researchers who have discovered that a good percentage of people who come in contact with false information don’t care about the follow up fact-checks. A recent survey by Zignal labs showed that 86 per cent of Americans who read news articles on social media do not always fact-check.
Not done, the ex-minister still used the opportunity of his vaccination to peddle falsehood about vaccines.
He wrote in the thread, “The Covid vaccines we are taking in Nigeria are not Bill Gates’ vaccines and neither are we being used as Guinea pigs. These ones are tried & tested, have already been approved & have been administered successfully throughout the world. This is the Oxford Azrazeneca brand.
“There is a world of difference between what we are being given in Nigeria & the exploratory vaccines that @WHO had wanted to test Africans with which we spoke against & resisted last year. Most importantly Bill Gates& his foundation have no connection with Oxford Azrazeneca.
“I would not touch anything Bill Gates with a barge pole for obvious reasons. Mark it.”
One notices that he recounted some of his earlier misinformation about the vaccines but not all that came in contact with the falsehood are impressed.
One of his followers replied sarcastically; “I praise your patriotism for agreeing to be one of our guinea pigs. Well done.” Another wrote; “nonsense” with rolling eyes emoji.
Perhaps this reply captures the question you might readily want to ask; “You got convinced by your sister and friend. What about the thousands you convinced and made to see the vaccine as devil products?”
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.