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REVIEW: 10 hoaxes that fooled the African continent

Mermaids found in an African president’s pool? A human foot sold as pork? A Christian prophet challenging a pride of lions?

All these stories sound too good (or crazy) to be true… and it turned out that they are.

Viral images and stories shared on social media and the internet are not always based on fact. Sometimes there are slight inaccuracies. In other cases, they are downright fabrications.

Here we present Africa Check’s selection of top 10 hoaxes and fakes that fooled the African continent.

1. 375 Christians murdered by Boko Haram militants

It’s a ghastly, disturbing image. Hundreds of badly burnt, disfigured and contorted bodies are lined up outside a building. A crowd, which includes military personnel and doctors, looks on.

The caption of the picture reads “Boko Haram burns 375 Christians”. Boko Haram is a militant Islamist group in Nigeria and the image has been shared thousands of times on social media in recent years.

But a bit of online sleuthing revealed that all was not as it appeared. The image was actually from a 2010 fuel tanker explosion in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

According to news reports, the fuel tanker overturned and spilt its load across the road. Villagers were attempting to collect the fuel when it ignited. A number of grass houses near the road caught on fire, trapping people inside. Over 200 people were killed and hundreds injured.

Pictures of the event have been used for a number of different hoaxes. It’s been used as “proof” of 2,000 people being killed in northern Nigeria, 86 children burnt to death by Boko Haram and the slaughter of Muslims by Buddhist monks.

READ: Boko Haram ‘massacre’ image fake

2. Pride of lions kills 5 poachers in Zimbabwe

Nature lovers rejoiced when a viral Facebook post reported that five poachers had been viciously attacked and killed by a pride of lions.

The “sudden and violent” attack supposedly occurred in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and left “bones and bits of flesh scattered over hundreds of square metres”. The surviving poachers were said to face up to 25 years in jail and fines of up to US$100,000.

Pictures shared with the post showed a black-maned lion snarling at the camera and a lion attacking a fleeing man.

However, the national park’s spokesman busted this hoax when she refuted that the attack took place. And the Facebook post’s pictures were sourced from a number of different places, in fact.

The image of a man crying actually showed a  man who reportedly visited a prophet after he grew breasts. The other image, of a lion jumping on a running man, was a still from the 1981 film Roar. And the image of the snarling black-maned lion was in reality taken in a safari park in Lahore, Pakistan.

READ: It’s a hoax! Pride of lions didn’t kill 5 poachers in Zimbabwe

3. Mermaids found in South African president’s pool

Mermaid props on display in the Jack Pierce Memorial Museum in Hollywood.
Mermaid props on display in the Jack Pierce Memorial Museum in Hollywood." />

You would have to vanquish, not just suspend, your disbelief to fall for this hoax. It may seem a stretch too far for the imagination, but many South Africans were lead to believe that two mermaids were found in the country’s presidential pool in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

The story and pictures were
posted on a website that supports one of the country’s opposition political parties. South Africa’s president was accused of “using the mermaids to prevent him from losing his place in leadership”.

The story included supposed comment from the president’s spokesman: “The President of the Republic… would like to set on record that although the two mermaids were discovered in a pool situated inside his… homestead, he was not aware of their existence.”

Unsurprisingly, this fishy tale was a hoax. The pictures accompanying the story showed props from the 2011 film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

It’s not the first (or probably last) time that this image has done the global hoax rounds. The rubber mermaids have been used to back up stories of mermaids in Pakistan and India, among many others.

READ: Nope, Nkandla’s ‘mermaids’ are actually from Hollywood

4. Goat gives birth to ‘human’ kids… for real?

A photo of “human” kids delivered by a goat in Nigeria’s Yobe state went viral in the country.

Along with photographs of the deformed creatures, lots of theories circulated of how they came to be. In Nigeria, social media users accused the owner of having had sex with the goat.

What exactly are people seeing in these photographs?

First things first: It is biologically impossible for humans to cross-breed with goats or sheep, Dr Carina Visser, senior lecturer in the department of animal and wildlife sciences at the University of Pretoria, told Africa Check.

Neither was magic involved, research technician at the Agricultural Research Council Leon Kruger told Africa Check. These images show what is known as a “monster fetus”, he explained.  

Kruger said a monster fetus may be caused by genetic abnormalities. “This fetus looks strange [and] usually dies in the womb. If it is born alive, it will die soon after,” Kruger said.

Certain diseases or malnutrition of the mother can also cause malformation of the fetus, Visser noted.

READ: Goat gives birth to ‘human’ kids… for real?

5. It’s not Mugabe’s ‘Blue Roof’ mansion, but Dr. Dre’s

Drawing on a story by the UK’s dubious Daily Mail, Citizen newspaper in South Africa reported about a “depressed” Robert Mugabe being “cooped up” in his Harare home.

Mugabe was president of Zimbabwe for 37 years until he resigned in November 2017.

But the picture accompanying the piece shows the house of US rapper Dr. Dre in Brentwood, Los Angeles.

Built by supermodel Gisele Bündchen and American footballer Tom Brady, the “eco-conscious residence” comprises 1,300 m², featuring several bedrooms and a moat-like water feature. It was sold to Dr. Dre in 2014. (Note: View a picture gallery of the house here.)

Another picture in Citizen’s article of Mugabe’s “sparkling swimming pool” has previously been debunked by the website Hoax-Slayer. It’s also of a Los Angeles mansion.

That said, Mugabe certainly didn’t spare any expenses to build his house in the suburb of Borrowdale Brooke, dubbed the “Blue Roof”. At the time it was built, The Guardian reported the 25-bedroom “lavish palace” would cost £6 million.

READ: It’s rapper Dr. Dre’s mansion – not Mugabe’s ‘Blue Roof’ house

6. Nigerian women armed with AK-47s fight off Boko Haram

It’s a great story: 20 Nigerian women armed with AK-47 assault rifles fought off an attack by Boko Haram militants. In the accompanying picture, a group of women - described as “gutsy bravehearts” - are shown facing the camera with their weapons.

This picture and story have been shared widely since 2013.

It’s understandable why it would resonate around the world. In April 2014, more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped from their dormitory in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria.

In 2015, a Facebook group shared the picture. The caption read: “When Boko Haram showed up to kill and rape us and our students we didn’t hide or throw spaghetti-os… We shot them in the face because we don’t ‘demand’ action – we take action.” The post quickly racked up likes and shares.

But a Google reverse image search revealed that the picture had been appropriated from elsewhere. The image was first published in 2012. It shows members of the Ganda Koy militia, a pro-government paramilitary force in Mali.

Many would liked to have believed the story. But the viral post about the “gutsy bravehearts” fighting off militants in Nigeria was a hoax.

READ: Nigerian women armed with AK-47s fight off Boko Haram militants

7. SA criminals using spiked oranges to hijack cars

You’d better swerve if you see an orange on the road in South Africa. That’s the advice a road safety organisation shared on their Facebook page after receiving a warning via the messaging application WhatsApp.

The image showed oranges studded with long nails. The dangerous fruit was supposedly being littered across the country’s roads by criminals hoping to hijack motorists when they pull over to assess a puncture.

But a local city police department told Africa Check that they had not received reports of this tactic being used by criminals.

An investigation revealed that the image had possibly originated from Malaysia. A Singaporean citizen-journalism website included the image in a story about “trouble-makers” throwing the nail-riddle fruit on roads.

READ: SA criminals using spiked oranges to hijack cars

8. Human foot sold as pork

A South African woman supposedly met an untimely end after visiting a newly opened shopping centre.

The nurse was reported to have died from a cardiac arrest after realising that the pork she bought contained a human foot. She made the grisly discovery when she started to prepare a meal for her family.

The story was published on fake news website Mzansi LIVE and went viral on social media, but it was completely without basis.

The website is the engine of many viral fake news stories, including a story which claimed that male circumcision caused cancer of the penis.

9. Prophet challenges lion

Filled with religious fervour, a Christian prophet left the safety of his car and rushed towards a pride of lions… Or so the story went that was widely reported by many African websites.

The man, allegedly a pastor of the Zion Christian Church, was said to have challenged the pride of lions while he was on a visit to South Africa’s Kruger National Park with members of his church.

The Zion Christian Church declined to comment on whether the story was true or not. But the national park confirmed it was a hoax, saying that the incident would have been reported to them if it had occurred.

The picture used to illustrate the hoax actually showed South African “lion whisperer” Kevin Richardson. In it, he interacts with two of his lions, Meg and Amy, on his farm in the Broederstroom area of South Africa.

READ: Did a Christian prophet challenge lions to a fight in the Kruger National Park?

10. Plastic rice for sale

Rice is a staple food in many African countries. Depending on where you are on the continent, you will find people tucking into rice-based dishes like jollof rice, waakye or mupunga une dovi.

As a result, there was widespread outrage when news of “plastic rice” being sold in Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and the Comoros made headlines.

Reports of “fake rice” first emerged in 2010 when a Chinese company was accused of mixing low-grade rice with bags of premium rice.

Since then stories of “fake rice” have been covered by the media across Africa and customers have shared viral pictures and videos of rice they suspected to be counterfeit.

In December 2016, it was reported that Nigerian customs agents had confiscated 2.5 tonnes of "plastic rice". It supposedly had a chemical smell, but was later shown to be legitimate. Not even the tiniest bit of plastic was found in any of the rice bags.

Despite widespread rumours and viral social media stories, there has been no proof that “fake rice” is being sold on the continent.

Hoax-busters have speculated that the motivation behind the viral “fake rice” stories may be to encourage people to buy locally grown rice over Chinese imports… or just to go viral, of course.


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