What Eritrea’s forced polygamy hoax tells us about the state of African news media

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Last week, a story claiming the Eritrean government had issued a ruling forcing men in the country to marry at least two wives was all abuzz on social media. On Facebook and Twitter memes abounded of men around the world apparently wanting to move to the country to take advantage of this new law.

There was one problem. It wasn’t true.

The story appeared to have originated from the online platform of The Standard, a Kenyan newspaper, supposedly as a satirical piece (the post has since been removed). But the ‘news’ quickly generated tremendous social media buzz. There was even a photo of the legal ruling that reports claimed came from Eritrea’s Grand Mufti issuing the edict. And soon the story went viral, picked up by multiple media outlets across the continent, including such well-followed platforms like SaharaReporters.

But just as quickly, the story was discredited. SaharaReporters, for example, admitted they were duped and retracted the story. The Eritrean minister of information took to Twitter to express his anger at the “negative narrative” it generated about his country.

Media frenzy to parrot this ludicrous, fabricated & trite story of the Mufti’s presumed religious decree on mandatory polygamy is appalling

— Yemane G. Meskel (@hawelti) January 27, 2016

But this is not the first time within the last three weeks that The Standard had created a viral hit. Days before the Eritrean story, a post appeared on its website with the headline: “No more thighs! Mini skirts banned in Magufuli turf.”

The post suggested that Tanzania’s newly elected president John Magufuli had issued an edict banning the wearing of mini-skirts in the country. “The argument is that minis have been contributing to the spread of HIV and AIDS,” the article claimed.

And just like the Eritrean polygamy story, it too went viral. Publications across the continent, including in South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria, picked it up and produced their own versions. On Twitter, jokes circulated, poking fun at the perceived moralizing and misogyny of Magufuli.

Magufuli blames HIV/AIDS on twerking and miniskirts (i.e. women) #WhatWouldMagufuliDo #Tanzania #Tanz https://t.co/BFKx01AnWh

— Morgan Vina (@morganlroach) January 19, 2016

Magufuli bans miniskirts in TZ. the gods must be crazy 😜

— Onnea Onesmus (@OnneaOnesmus) January 19, 2016

Its 20-effing-16..well done https://t.co/RKJzYac5ut

— Dj Zabu (@djzabu) January 19, 2016

But once again, the story was untrue.

Tanzania’s foreign ministry was forced to issue a strongly worded statement denying it. “There is no doubt that President Magufuli and his government are strong proponents of decent dressing, but the ministry wishes to put the record straight that the President has not issued any ban on miniskirts for any reason,” the statement said. Following the denial, the Standard issued a correction. And there are reports that the digital editor responsible for these blunders has since been reassigned to another role.

The Standard, owned by the Standard Group, which also controls TV and radio stations, is the oldest newspaper in Kenya. At 2.2 million it boasts the second highest readership in the country after the Daily Nation. Meanwhile, the online platform for the media group is the fourth most popular site in east Africa’s largest economy, according to the analytics site Alexa.com.

But the mistakes committed by the site over the last month shows how the changing media economics (pg. 43) around the world are starting to impact African journalism. To chase traffic, sometimes unverified rumors with headline grabbing posts find their way to publication. And with the increasing popularity of social media on the continent, poorly fact-checked stories can go viral in seconds as they ping from country to country, diaspora to diaspora amplified by Facebook and Twitter like the Eritrea story did.

Readers + social media = viral hit!

But bad journalism isn’t the only figure of blame in this. Readers are complicit too. Especially when these stories tap into our prejudices which then act as fuel to such bogus social media-driven narratives.

In the miniskirt ban case, the administration in Tanzania has gained pan-African notoriety for its assertive new ways. But to some, this is being viewed as over-reaching. So when a story emerged that Magufuli was banning miniskirts it fed into the “over-reaching narrative” and the internet exploded accordingly.

Similarly with Eritrea. The country has been described elsewhere as the “North Korea of Africa” for its authoritarian tendencies. The suggestion that the state is forcing polygamy on its people would fit the profile, right? Well, social media took that and ran with it.

And this does not always apply when its a negative story. Take for example last year’s report about a Nigerian mathematician who claimed to have solved a 156-year old math problem. The story received world-wide attention, including from the BBC and the British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph. But it turned out it wasn’t exactly true, as Quartz revealed at the time.

But all these stories remind us of an old adage: don’t believe everything you read.

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