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Understanding How the Salt-and-Water Ebola Cure Hoax Spread in Nigeria

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. As a communication and new media scholar, I’m intrigued by how a silly, infantile Internet joke about a s...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

As a communication and new media scholar, I’m intrigued by how a silly, infantile Internet joke about a salt-and-warm-water home remedy for Ebola not only spread with unprecedentedly wild rapidity across the length and breadth of Nigeria but almost literally gulled the entire nation.

The prank was started on August 7, 2014 by a female undergraduate of the Federal University of Technology, Akure, identified simply as Adesewa. In an apology she posted on August 8, 2014 on a Nigerian online discussion forum called, she said amid the mass hysteria that attended the outbreak of Ebola in Nigeria she and her friends decided to hatch a hoax about a cure for Ebola and watch how many people would fall for it within their circle of friends in the Blackberry Messenger community.

Her confession is worth reproducing in its entirety:  “Yesterday I was with [a] friend in her hostel, we were talking about this Ebola outbreak, when one of my friends, Funke (she introduced me to Nairaland) brought the idea of us playing a prank on our friends. The first suggestion was to tell people that aloe [vera] could cure Ebola, but we thought it would sound too ridiculous so we forgot about it.

“Later that [evening] an idea came to me (I now regret that I did it). I decided to send a BBM [Blackberry Messenger] broadcast message to my friends, telling them that the Ministry of Health has asked everyone to bathe with salt and warm water and drink some of it. I sent the message 7:08pm yesterday

“Later this midnight I started getting calls and messages that I should drink salt water and bath with it.

“All efforts to tell people that I was the one who started the joke failed. Only my friends who I mentioned earlier believed me. Even my mum [called] me this morning; I did not know what to tell her.

“I am using this medium to beg you all to warn and tell everyone, before they drink salt and damage their health.

“Please don’t be hash [sic] on me. I know this has gone out of hand. I never knew it will be this serious. Some have even added to the original message I sent.”

This was an undoubtedly irresponsible joke that exploited people’s panic and helplessness about a strange and deadly disease. In moments of disabling anxiety and panic, people’s credulity is often easily malleable. News reports say that in Jos, the Plateau State capital, two people died and 20 others were hospitalized as a consequence of excessive salt intake. That’s heartbreaking. But in today’s article I am not as concerned with the ethical impropriety of this cruel joke as I am with the mechanism of its wildly rapid spread.

In the wake of the wide and deep percolation of this prank in almost every crevice of the Nigerian society through social media networks and words of mouth, several students and teachers of mass communication in Nigeria commented that the success of the joke proves that the hypodermic needle theory—an old, discredited communication theory that assumed that the mass media were more or less like social syringes that were capable of injecting intended messages into helpless, unresisting audiences with immediate and dramatic effects—was well and alive. That’s wrong. And here is why.

The hypodermic needle theory assumed that the influence of mass media messages on receivers resulted from a direct, unmediated access to the messages. But this wasn’t what happened in Nigeria. The millions of Nigerians who bathed in and drank warm salt water didn’t read Adesawa’s initial message directly. If they did, they might have dismissed it outright given that, by herself, she has no credibility; she is a mere 20-something-year-old undergraduate who isn’t even a medical student.

Her prank was effective because it (unintentionally) got into the hands of several gullible, unsophisticated opinion leaders who nonetheless enjoy social capital among vast networks of people. There is an old communication theory that explains how this works. The theory, called the two-step flow theory of communication or the multi-step flow theory of communication, says that media influence on receivers isn’t always direct; that media messages often first flow to opinion leaders who in turn use their conversational currency to influence people who look up to them for information and guidance.

The theory had been criticized in the past for lacking empirical corroboration, but the form and nature of “virality” on the Internet is causing communication scholars to rehabilitate it. (Viral messages are internet messages, videos, memes, images, etc. that have the capacity to induce another (unrelated) person to voluntarily share them and thereby lead to their rapid and mass distribution across spatial and temporal bounds).

New media scholars have discovered that one of the strategies to achieve “virality” for messages is to popularize them through “tastemakers,” that is, people who influence digital trends, who have huge, engaged Twitter followers, Facebook friends, Google Plus followers, BBM and WhatsApp friends, etc.. That was precisely how Kony 2012, the most viral video in history, achieved virality. It was almost singlehandedly popularized by digital trendsetters. 

The power of digital influencers (who have been found to be more effective than the traditional mass media in spreading “viral” messages) is often helped by what new media scholars like to call a digital mob mentality, which is itself aided by the incredible ease of sharing that social media outlets enable.

But the Nigerian salt-and-warm-water Ebola cure hoax belongs in a different variety of virality because the initiators of the hoax didn’t intend for it to go beyond their limited circle of friends. Nevertheless, it captured the attention of the entire country. 

This calls for extreme caution in the kinds of jokes people share on social media, especially in contexts where the jokes can lead to death and reckless endangerment—such as this one.

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