An interesting example of poor journalism and credulous sharing (Robert Mugabe is alive and well, unfortunately.)

Today I saw several shares about Robert Mugabe being in critical condition because of a heart attack.

It didn’t take long to figure out what actually happened:

  1. “Prophet” predicts the death of Mugabe. (Here.)
  2. “Prophet” declares that it came true. (Here.)
  3. Journalists pass along the exciting story, adding their own “facts”. (Example.)
  4. It is only the articles of the previous point, that take wings and fly on social media, articles that do not mention that the source of the death was a prediction made by a disgruntled “prophet”.

Some of the sites rereporting the story even cite (without a link) the source “Daily Prophet” as if it is a reputable African newspaper. It doesn’t appear to exist. More likely, the case is that the so-called prophet was pissed off because of something Mugabe said about him (You can find that if you ask Uncle Google the right questions). Then that “prophet” made the December 31 2015 death prediction, and on December 31st, stated that it had come true, as reported on by the second link above. (The one with the misleading title, including “official announcement expected soon”. Seriously, if you make a prediction, and then announce that it has come to pass, that doesn’t make it true.) So there’s really nothing in this story… and anybody who took the time to conduct a five minute Google “investigation” could have figured that out just like I did.

Interesting that somehow a self-proclaimed prophet became a newspaper or news site called the Daily Prophet. This may be more than mere sloppy journalism… it may be a deliberate misrepresentation by somebody who knew that the story was not true. i.e. a hoax. Subsequently it was shared by other journalists who don’t check the facts.

If this is a hoax, it is well timed. Robert Mugabe and his family are enjoying their annual holiday, so Zimbabwe has even appointed an acting president in his absence. This fuels the speculation that he is dead, and gives people who are keen to believe the rumours the false impression that the Zimbabwean government is panicking as they scramble to figure out what to do without him.

What I wonder is, why do we want to share stories so much when they agree with what we’d like to be true, that we are willing to forego any critical thinking to do so? There must be some interesting psychology behind this.

One of my friends even argued with me about it…


Of course Robert Mugabe is old and it wouldn’t be surprising if he died of a “heart attack” any time in the next couple of years. If a psychic/prophet wanted to predict something likely to happen anyway, his death seems like a good bet. And heart attack is ambiguous enough for them to claim an accurate prediction for a number of causes of death. But that’s besides the point in this case, I suppose, as the story was passed along with references to the prophet removed or deliberately altered.

Disclaimer: I could be wrong, of course. Especially since this will only publish the morning after I write it, an official announcement could be made in the meantime. But that’s unlikely. Looking at how this story developed, it is interesting, but almost certainly not true.

Update (2016-01-14): I didn’t find this article last night when I wrote this post, but it seems that I’m right. Mugabe’s long holiday is the perfect time for death hoaxes. Zim journalists roll their eyes at Mugabe death rumours. This article mentions the prophet, as I have, but also identifies the initial source article of the other “facts” that were added before being shared on Facebook.


About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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