For the next three episodes, the Fact Checker video team will focus on a different location where online misinformation led to real-life — and often troubling — consequences. We will unravel what happened and reveal what that means for us now.
Our first story takes us to the central African country of Gabon, where a missing president and a suspect video helped spark an attempted coup.
In the early hours of Jan. 7, 2019, gunshots rang out at Gabon’s national radio station.
“I thought it was firecrackers thrown by young people,” said Gabonese activist Marc Ona Essangui, “but finally, we realized that it was the coup because the attackers were broadcast live on the radio.”
A handful of armed soldiers from Gabon’s elite Republican Guard had seized the station and taken over the airwaves. In a broadcast, Lt. Kelly Ondo Obiang encouraged Gabonese to rise up and “restore democracy.” “If you are eating, stop; if you are having a drink, stop; if you are sleeping, wake up. Wake up your neighbors. … Rise up as one and take control of the street,” Obiang said.
The commotion in this relatively stable country — especially compared with its neighbors — grabbed the attention of international media outlets. Correspondents debated the merits and reasoning for the attempted coup. Obiang in his statement pointed the blame at the failing health of President Ali Bongo Ondimba and the “sorry spectacle” of his New Year’s address.
Bongo came to power in the oil-rich nation in 2009 after the death of his father, who ruled for 42 years. But Bongo’s ascent to the presidency was contentious. His 2016 reelection was met with violence and accusations of fraud. Bongo has denied any wrongdoing.
Fast-forward two years to October 2018, when Bongo was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, attending the Future Investment Initiative summit. Shortly after the start of the program, on Oct. 25, 2018, Saudi state media transmitted a report saying Bongo had been hospitalized.
Over the next few months, questions about Bongo’s health grew as the government provided little and evolving health reports. In October, the president’s spokesperson said Bongo had suffered “severe fatigue.” By mid-November, it was “bleeding.” A month later, the vice president said it was a stroke.
The statements and lack thereof — the administration released only a few images and a silent video of Bongo — helped feed rumors mainly from the opposition that Bongo was dead or replaced with a body double.
“We did not know what was happening,” said a journalist who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern about government retaliation, “but some guards secretly told us that the president was still alive because if he died, he would have been buried. But otherwise, there was not a lot of official information, which was scary.”
Jessye Ella Ekogha, the current presidential spokesman — the previous official is in jail on corruption allegations — told The Fact Checker that although he was not there at the time, he believes the government did not want to “throw fuel on the fire” by responding to the rumors.
But as the days passed, the country anxiously awaited to see whether Bongo would give a New Year’s address. Reports said he would, and on Dec. 31, 2018, he did — from Morocco. It was Bongo’s first public statement since the rumors started. Some in Gabon took the video as proof that Bongo was alive, but others questioned its authenticity and Bongo’s fitness to govern.
Neurologist Alexander W. Dromerick, vice president for research at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, said Bongo appeared to look like someone who had suffered a stroke or a brain injury and undergone cosmetic procedures.
“He has a great deal of facial makeup, and I think he probably had Botox because neither side of his face is moving,” Dromerick told The Fact Checker after watching the video. “If you look at his eye, the distance between the upper lid and the lower lid is greater on the right than the left. And that’s an indication of facial weakness.”
But not everyone was convinced that the president’s strange appearance was health-related. Some thought the man in the video was a look-alike. Elvine Belinda Andjembe Etogho, spokesperson for the Gabonese Council of Resistance, said there were opposition members who tried to prove that the video was a “deepfake” or manipulated by artificial intelligence.
The Fact Checker asked Steve Grobman, the chief technology officer at the cyberdefense firm McAfee, to analyze the video. He and his team ran it through two forensic tests, and both came back with nearly a 92 percent probability of being authentic. But he warned that the analysis is not conclusive.
So, we got a second opinion. University of Albany professor of computer science and digital-media forensics expert Siwei Lyu ran the video through his deepfake algorithm at our request. The higher the score values (the max is one), the more likely the video is authentic.
Lyu ran a confirmed deepfake through the algorithm. It scored 0.0. The New Year’s address scored 0.99. “The algorithm did not find signal cues that appear in existing deepfake generation methods in these videos,” Lyu concluded.
And so, this evidence suggests it was probably just an overly staged video of a sick president. But the controversy over his health, the months of misinformation, and the already fragile political and economic situation was a recipe for unrest.
“We barely see him. We never hear him. You can tell that he’s paralyzed,” Etogho said. “So you understand that because of all of that … and the lying, yeah, I can see how the coup came out of that.”
There were many theories as to why the president appeared changed in the New Year’s address. The soldiers were of the opinion that Bongo was being propped up by those around him — not that the video was a deepfake. They didn’t trust that Bongo was in control.
“Once again, those fiercely holding onto power continue to use and to back President Ali Bongo Ondimba to keep in place an invalid who has lost his physical and mental faculties,” said Obiang on the day of the attempted coup.
But shortly after Obiang read his statement, his uprising was thwarted. The plotters were either arrested or killed. And Bongo has since made public appearances — but has undergone an undeniable physical change. He’s pushed for the detainment of officials in an anti-corruption crackdown and appointed his son as a top presidential aide. Opposition leader Jean Ping was reported as saying that this move confirms that Gabon is “turning into a monarchy.”
Presidential spokesman Ekogha would neither confirm nor deny that the president had a stroke in 2018.
The Bottom Line
The video was probably not a deepfake, and the coup was most likely spurred because of misinformation and an ill president — on full display in the New Year’s address.
But the consequences of months of confusion and rumors are still felt in Gabon today. The opposition has asked the courts to rule on Bongo’s ability to govern, Bongo’s health is under constant scrutiny, and some critics still spread online conspiracy theories that he’s dead. This chain of events is an example of how easy it is in this age of suspect information for governments to lose credibility.
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