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Assassination of president plunges Haiti into conspiracy theories, rumor and fake news

The stunning murder of Jovenel Moïse has unleashed a torrent of political, social, and economic turmoil –and a chaos of misinformation

Jean-Claude Louis’ phone rang around 4 a.m. on Wednesday, July 7, jolting him awake in his home outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

On the other line, a friend told him he heard Jovenel Moïse, the country’s president, may have been assassinated. Louis scoured the news for more information, and the official confirmation came about an hour later. “It was on all the networks, the social networks, everybody interpreting it their own way” recalled Louis, the coordinator of Panos Institute, a Haitian nonprofit that trains journalists and youth on media literacy and identifying disinformation. 

The attack plunged Haiti—which has no functioning parliament and has long been riven by protests calling for Moïse’s resignation over corruption allegations—into a deeper political abyss. 

When I reached Louise by phone on Wednesday night, Haiti’s acting prime minister, Claude Joseph, had imposed martial law, and people were still struggling to make sense of a shocking act of political violence that left Moïse’s body riddled with bullets and signs of torture. “There are still issues that are still not clarified, so there are many unknowns about this assassination,” he told me.

The unresolved circumstances of Moïse’s death have left Haitians with an information void that’s being filled with rumor and conspiracy. In the hours and days after Moïse’s murder, Louise — a former reporter— saw speculation and disinformation abound. “There are so many rumors and so much fake news,” he said, with a weary chuckle. “Everybody is using their own theory to justify what has happened.” 

On Wednesday morning, the acting prime minister, Claude Joseph, said the attack was carried out by an “armed commando group” that included foreigners, and some assailants spoke Spanish—an allegation fueling speculation and fake news, Louis said. Among the rumors circulating are claims that the killers may have been hired assassins from the Dominican Republic, where local officials are investigating if the attackers used the country to escape, according to reports from the Dominican newspaper Diario Libre.

On social media, a video circulated of a man, allegedly near where the attack took place at the president’s home on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, yelling in English over a megaphone: “DEA operation. Everybody stand down.” 

Late Wednesday evening, Haiti’s ambassador to Washington, Bocchit Edmond, told the Guardian the men who killed Moïse claimed they were U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration members when they entered his home. Haitian officials told the Miami Herald the attackers were not part of the DEA. Officials with the Biden administration said the DEA was not involved and a U.S. State Department employee called the claim “absolutely false.” But that hasn’t prevented the steady hum of conspiracy. “People are alleging that the president might have done some wrong deal and the DEA guys came for him,” Louis said. “This is not official news,” he added. “This is fake news.” 

On Facebook, a Haitian radio and “media personality” with more than 41,000 followers wrote Moïse was “assassinated in his private residence by a Venezuelan and Colombian commando.” Louis shared a post of unknown origin circulating on WhatsApp claiming the unit that killed Moïse included two members of the Haitian National Police. He said he also saw speculation online questioning the role of the country’s national intelligence service and why it was unable to prevent the attack.

The disinformation over Wednesday’s events spread to people monitoring events from afar. U.S.-based Brian Concannon, founder of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, a coalition of Haitian and U.S. human rights advocates, said he came across a WhatsApp post that had been reshared from someone who said they believed the attack was a DEA operation gone bad. “Not saying that’s true, just what people are reporting,” he told me. “I’m seeing a lot of stuff. Some of the things I think are people trying to get the best information, and then there’s some that’s probably intentional disinformation.”

The prevalence of disinformation in Haiti’s digital ecosystem predated Moïse’s attack. Louis said fake news is primarily spread on WhatsApp, which people prefer using because they are able to send voice memos. In the summer of 2020, Panos surveyed 288 Haitians on their media consumption habits, and more than half said they used WhatsApp and Facebook as their primary means of accessing news. 62 percent of people surveyed said disinformation eroded their trust in local leaders and the media. 

“There are many people who think everything said on WhatsApp is true and they forward it without analyzing it and that’s an issue,” Louis said. “Social media is an information tool but at the same time it can destroy you.”

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