Burning bodies? Mass graves? Ecuador battles fake news amid the coronavirus pandemic

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Last week, jarring images raced around the globe that seemed to show desperate people in Ecuador burning bodies on the street. According to the social media posts, the coronavirus had overwhelmed the Lenín Moreno administration and pushed the country — long known for political instability — to the brink.

But when police went to the sites where the videos were filmed, the truth was a bit more nuanced. In one case, a family was burning tires to protest the government’s delay in recovering the body of a relative. In another case, people were burning a couch on which someone with the contagious virus had been sleeping.

“The idea that people were burning bodies on the streets — those images were shared around the world, television stations re-posted them, even presidents of countries fell for them,” said Ecuador’s Communication Secretary Gabriel Arroba.

And they weren’t true.

Amid the global war against the pandemic, many countries are also finding themselves in a fight against fake and misleading news that they’re not always winning.

As much of the world remains quarantined, stewing in a pressure cooker of stress and rumors, the images spread faster than the virus, passed around by the unsuspecting. But in some cases there seems to be something more nefarious afoot.

Governments from Haiti to the Cayman Islands to South Africa have all said they’ve been besieged by sometimes dangerously false reports.

Ecuador officials believe they’re being attacked by a well organized group intent on toppling the administration.

“We’re working with our intelligence services to follow these clues,” Arroba told the Miami Herald. “But there seems to be a clear goal of destabilizing the government.”

The South American country — best known for the Galápagos Islands and for once providing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum in its London embassy — has been hit hard by the coronavirus.

The country has seen 4,450 cases and 242 deaths. That’s more coronavirus cases than any other Latin American nation but Brazil and Chile.

Most of the cases are centered around the coastal city of Guayaquil, which has played host to macabre scenes: bodies on the sidewalk, people collapsing on corners, the desperate and coughing huddled outside of packed hospitals.

And while it’s true that the city initially had trouble keeping up with body recovery, Arroba said there is also a concerted effort to twist and amplify the troubles.

The government has identified 6,000 social media accounts, all working in unison, to spread false information. On some occasions, those accounts have managed to plant the stories more than 180 million times.

Early on in the crisis, when the government said it would be giving a $60 bonus to the nation’s neediest, the accounts spread the word that all 16.6 million of Ecuador’s citizens were eligible and needed to rush to the bank to demand their payment. Another time, the accounts pushed the narrative that the country was running out of food and encouraged people to hoard groceries.

Both came at a time when the government was asking people to shelter in place.

“These waves of news are all centered around a theme, and each wave seems to have a goal,” Arroba said. “They’ve been trying to create panic and have people collapse the food distribution system or collapse the banking system.”

More recently, the accounts began sharing pictures of what they said was a clandestine mass grave for COVID-19 victims in Ecuador. The picture was years old and was actually of a graveyard in Mexico, Arroba said.

While the government has no solid proof, officials believe members of the previous Rafael Correa administration are thought to be behind the cyberattacks. At least half of the suspect accounts are based in Mexico, where several former Correa allies have sought asylum amid corruption charges.

“Of course, the main weapon of fake news is anonymity,” Arroba said. But there are strong indications “that members of the previous government are involved.”

Correa, who lives in Belgium where his wife is from, has lashed out at the implication that he or his loyalists might be behind a disinformation campaign.

Ecuador’s government “can’t even bury the dead but they are capable of continuing their hate and politicking,” he wrote on Twitter in response to the government allegations. “If this nefarious government isn’t sent home soon they’re going to bury us all.”

The animus between Correa and the current administration runs deep. Moreno, Correa’s one-time vice president, won election in 2017 on the back of his boss’ support. But soon after entering office, he turned on him and launched a series of corruption investigations into the former president’s dealings.

On Tuesday, Ecuador’s courts sentenced Correa, his former Vice President Jorge Glas and 16 other people to eight years in prison on corruption charges. The sentence also bars them from holding public office for 25 years.

Correa said it was ridiculous for a country in the middle of a pandemic to push through with a trial.

“What worries me and tears at my soul is to see the nation dying, those bodies on the street and abandoned in homes,” he said in a video message to supporters. “Ecuador has done the worst job in the region of confronting this pandemic and it’s only going to get worse.”

Ecuador isn’t alone in trying to fend off fake news.

The Cayman Islands has been in a frenzy since a voicemail message surfaced on social media over the weekend. The message claimed that a British Airways flight chartered to bring medical supplies and islanders home on Monday had actually been arranged by Gov. Martyn Roper because Roper wanted to bring his wife back from the United Kingdom.

While Roper denied it, the message took on a life. On Tuesday, Cayman police said they had arrested a person in relation to the fake message.

Cayman Islands Premier Alden McLaughlin also apologized to Roper, calling the incident “vile” and “disgusting.”

“I was just so embarrassed and so angry,” McLaughlin said Monday during the national COVID-19 briefing. “The voice note made me ashamed to be a Caymanian.”

In Haiti, government officials were also forced to speak out Monday after a “fake Facebook post” by a person claiming to be a relative of the country’s first COVID-19 fatality said the victim had died of other causes, effectively calling officials liars. And days earlier, a government prosecutor triggered debate over freedom of the press and protest on the street when he ordered the arrest of radio personality Luckner “Louko” Desir for allegedly claiming there were no coronavirus cases in the country. Desir has denied ever making the statement and says his arrest was unwarranted.

Farther afield, in South Africa, courts charged a man with spreading fake news after he posted a widely circulated video that claimed the government’s coronavirus testing kits were actually giving people COVID-19.

Speaking at an online conference hosted by the International Center for Journalists last week, Branko Brkic, the founder of South Africa’s Daily Maverick news site, said that misinformation and disinformation were already rampant before the pandemic, but now they had become a matter of life and death.

“Whoever is spreading fake news is a horrible human being. Whoever is spreading fake news in this environment, I hope they burn in hell,” he said. “The level of immorality of that is horrible to me.”

Arroba said he’s confident that Ecuadorian investigators will eventually present their case and close down the misinformation shop.

“We’re still collecting evidence, because a poorly presented case could end in nothing,” he said. “There are many indications, but we’re still looking for specific evidence. The problem is the anonymity of social networks.”

And he admits that not all of the misleading videos in Ecuador may be part of a concerted cyberattack.

Last week, another video circulated widely purporting to show a doctor walking through the halls of a hospital crammed with corpses in black body bags. Depending on the social network, the image was attributed to New York, the Dominican Republic or Ecuador.

Arroba said officials managed to read one of the names on a body bag and ran it through the country’s databank of deceased.

“It wasn’t in there, so apparently it’s not Ecuador,” he said. “But that hospital seems to be everywhere in the world.”


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