Zambia recently experienced a wave of gas attacks that began in December 2019 in Chingola, a city in the Copperbelt Province. In January 2020 140 people sought medical attention after their homes were sprayed with an unknown chemical - suspected to be gas.
In February the BBC reported that more than 370 homes had been attacked, with over 1000 people affected in the Copperbelt Province over three weeks. The series of attacks has been described as the “worst spell of tensions” to affect Zambia in recent years.The wave of gas attacks caused panic and chaos as citizens took the law into their own hands and targeted those suspected of involvement in the gassings. The same report indicates that more than 50 people were killed in vigilante attacks and this figure was also reported by the Zambian police force.It appears that many of the vigilante attacks were inspired by a flood of misinformation and speculation spread on social media.
AFP Fact Check investigated many of the claims circulated online and refuted them here. The investigation indicates that a wide variety of claims were posted, with many shared over 2 500 times.By the end of February the amount of misinformation being propagated led to the Zambian ICT Authority (ZICTA) expressing alarm at the situation and the regulator announced that it was working with security forces to identify responsible parties. While ZICTA Director Patrick Mutimushi did not specifically mention gas attacks in his statement, it was at the same time that the attacks and related mob attacks occurred. Mutimushi also urged journalists to combat fake news and verify information before publication. President Lungu also spoke out against misinformation and expressed his desire for ZICTA and the police to collaborate to track down “abusers of social media”.
The gas attacks and the coronavirus pandemic illustrate the power of misinformation which is so easily spread in the social media age. Where the public is faced with serious challenges, whether in the form of crime or a public health crisis, the difficulties are only exacerbated where misinformation is propagated on social media.
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