Fear, panic and fake news spread after Ebola outbreak in Uganda

Isobel Cockerell


Fear and panic about Ebola has been around for years. During the 2014 epidemic, hoaxes included claims that an infected woman had been found in Atlanta, and that Ebola was a bioweapon. The false stories spread across the internet, helped along by Donald Trump, far-right outlets like Breitbart News, pseudoscience platforms like Natural News, and last but not least, the Kremlin’s notorious “Internet Research Agency” troll farm. “There were so many lessons to take away from this. But looking at the Ebola discourse today, it seems we didn’t learn from any of them,” tweeted Caroline Orr Bueno, a behavioral scientist who specializes in Ebola narratives. 

Two districts in Uganda have introduced their first Ebola lockdown while the country waits for vaccines. The World Health Organization has said the disease is “rapidly evolving” in the country, with 64 recorded cases and 24 recorded deaths. The online conversation about the disease is mimicking the fake news of the past. On Twitter, the most popular posts about the disease are made by influencers, not scientists or doctors. And the disinformation is dangerous: in Uganda, a vicious rumor is spreading that people who seek treatment for Ebola in hospitals could have their organs harvested. 

“People cannot steal your organs like that,” Uganda’s Health Minister Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng tried to reassure a crowd in Uganda this week. There’s also been a carbon copy of the “Ebola in Atlanta” hoax story of 2014 — spawned by Russia — except this time, Ebola is supposedly in Chicago. Rumors flew on social media that two cases were discovered in the windy city. “This is FALSE. We don’t have any Ebola cases here,” Chicago epidemiologist Katrine Wallace tweeted, explaining how the press release that sparked the rumors came from back in 2014, when all this began. 


If you’re a young Russian man ripe for conscription, one of the most effective ways out of it is to forge medical papers saying you have HIV or hepatitis. A cottage industry has sprung up on Telegram to help Russian men avoid mobilization — pay $620 for an HIV diagnosis, or $820 for a hepatitis certificate, which would involve being added to the national database of those with the diseases. The report by Rest of World didn’t specify why the HIV diagnosis was cheaper — but it could be because of the long-running stigma and misinformation about HIV-positive people that accompanies a diagnosis in Russia. 

As Russia attacks Ukrainian civilians with missiles and kamikaze drones, several academic institutions in the country find themselves under fire. Rockets have blown out windows in the University of Kyiv’s science library, Institute of Philology, National Museum of Natural History, the Ministry of Education and Science, and the National Academy of Sciences in Ukraine. At Coda, we talk about reporting on the “war on science” but these attacks constitute, quite literally, a war on science. And whenever this war does end, Ukrainian scientists will likely struggle to persuade their colleagues and students to return from Europe, where many of them have fled. “We are glad our colleagues found shelter, but we must think about how to attract them to come back after the victory,” Anatoly Zagorodny, 71, the President of Ukraine’s National Academy of Scientists, told Science magazine, describing how fighting Ukraine’s brain drain will be an enormous challenge once the war is over. 

In Vermont, a town official working in a Richmond water department has quietly lowered fluoride in water levels for almost a decade. The employee, Kendall Chamberlin, told Vermont’s Water and Sewer Commission that he had reduced fluoride levels in water systems below state-recommended levels because he was concerned about the effects of “Chinese” fluoride, and didn’t think the argument for adding fluoride to water was scientifically sound. He separately told a Vermont local paper he believed Chinese fluoride was “poison.” For more than 70 years, conspiracy theorists have claimed water fluoridation was a “Soviet plot” or a government mind-control project. Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral, and adding it to water systems is proven to reduce tooth decay in populations — as one of the greatest health achievements of the 20th century. 


The environmental stakes couldn’t be higher in Brazil’s presidential race, with the make-or-break vote scheduled for the day before Halloween. If incumbent right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro wins, it could further erode Brazil’s scientific research industry, and spell irreversible disaster for the Amazon. Science magazine has the rundown we all need to read.