To be honest, I’d never much thought about the Ebola lockdowns in Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2014 and 2015. Within public health, the Sierra Leone and Liberia lockdowns were an early illustration of the fact that lockdowns were ineffective, but governments of developing nations sometimes do strange things; the idea that these lockdowns might have greater geopolitical significance never occurred to me.
This changed dramatically when I began studying social media activity about lockdowns before 2020. Prior to 2014, and from 2016 to 2019, there’s virtually no social media activity about lockdowns. However, this pattern changes abruptly during one specific period: The lockdowns in Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2014 and 2015. During this time period, millions of bot tweets suddenly appear, ceaselessly and relentlessly tweeting about “Ebola lockdown” in virtually identical language.
Sierra Leone’s first lockdown began on September 19, 2014. Immediately, on that day, a virtual stampede of bots began posting hundreds of thousands of tweets about Sierra Leone’s “Ebola lockdown,” nearly all of them receiving zero likes.
The next day, September 20, 2014, the bots continued to post hundreds of thousands of tweets about Sierra Leone’s “Ebola lockdown.” Virtually all of these posts again received zero likes.
All in all, Sierra Leone imposed three lockdowns throughout 2014 and 2015, which were extended on an ad hoc basis, and neighboring Liberia imposed its own as well. The bots continued to post thousands upon thousands of tweets every day throughout the duration of Sierra Leone and Liberia’s lockdowns all the way through their end in March 2015, by which point the bots had posted millions of tweets about “Ebola lockdown” in Sierra Leone and Liberia, virtually all receiving zero likes.
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For real humans, Ebola lockdowns never became a popular subject. Despite the millions of bot tweets about “Ebola lockdown” in 2014 and 2015, by the end of 2015, only six of these tweets had received 50 or more likes. Further, before and after Sierra Leone and Liberia’s Ebola lockdowns, lockdowns in the epidemiological sense are virtually never discussed on Twitter. The words “pandemic lockdown” appear just three times prior to 2014, and the words “Ebola lockdown” never appear at all. And, despite the millions of bot tweets about Ebola lockdowns in 2014 and 2015, the subject practically disappears in later years; from 2016 to 2019 the words “pandemic lockdown” appear just three times, and the words “Ebola lockdown” appear just 39 times.
By 2015, less than 1.5% of Sierra Leone’s population had any access to the Internet. Sierra Leone could not have orchestrated this bot campaign itself.
These facts lead to only one conclusion: Sierra Leone and Liberia’s lockdowns in 2014 and 2015 were supported in part by a foreign campaign in which bots posted millions of posts on social media, all specifically using the word “lockdown.”
Lockdown had no history in Sierra Leone and Liberia before 2014, just as lockdown had no precedent in the western world and was not part of any western country’s pandemic plan before 2020. Lockdown was used periodically by the government of China prior to then, such as in 2003.
The presence of a foreign bot campaign involving millions of posts specifically promoting “lockdown” in Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2014 and 2015—where the policy had no prior history—serves as unmistakable evidence that a template to export the policy of lockdown to countries outside of China existed by 2014.
There are many more eerie similarities. As in 2020, Sierra Leone’s 2014 Ebola lockdowns were accompanied by a bizarre campaign from major international media outlets admiring the country’s empty streets, regardless of any human toll.
It’s not entirely clear what the bots were doing by posting millions of posts during the Ebola lockdowns. However, it appears that they were trying at least in part to drown out serious discussion and dissent to the lockdowns—almost like hacking reality itself.
This strategy seems to have been effective. Just as in 2020, it was well known and widely reported in the epidemiology community that the lockdowns would not work—and ultimately did not work—but governments continued to enforce them anyway. And, as in 2020, the 2014 lockdowns resulted in widespread hunger, water shortages, rioting, and attempts to flee.
Yet, as in 2020, these abuses were met with quiet approval by international human rights organizations. They even launched a social media campaign for #ZeroEbola.
The New York Times even had the same guy, Donald McNeil, write much the same article in 2014 as the one he wrote in 2020, celebrating the return of what he admiringly dubbed a “medieval” policy. As McNeil wrote in 2020 in praise of China’s lockdowns: “The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, was able to seal off the city of Wuhan, where the Covid-19 outbreak began, because China is a place where a leader can ask himself, ‘What would Mao do?’ and just do it.” An estimated 65 million people died from starvation, overwork, and state violence during Mao’s reign. McNeil was fired from the New York Times later in 2020, though the publication has not admitted that his firing had to do with lockdowns.
The significance of this pro-lockdown campaign in 2014 can’t be overstated. Even among lockdown skeptics, the widely-held view is that the world essentially bumbled into lockdown in 2020. Although China’s global lockdown propaganda campaign utilizing tens of thousands of bots in virtually every language and dialect across the world is well documented, moderates have argued that this campaign merely represented China celebrating its own “success” against Covid—whether real or not—rather than any premeditated plan to export lockdown as policy.
Hawks like myself have long argued that this view was geopolitically naïve. Massive government bureaucracies don’t suddenly throw away their pandemic plans and seize indefinite emergency powers by accident.
Moreover, because China never had an Ebola outbreak, Sierra Leone could not be said to have imported lockdowns in order to copy China’s “success.” In 2014, China had no “success” to be copied, yet lockdowns were exported anyway. Moderates have argued that the export of lockdowns in 2020 was driven primarily by the perception of China’s success against Covid, but the lockdowns in Sierra Leone and Liberia belie that notion.
Rather, the theatre of copying China was, at best, a cordial invitation to elites across the world to join the CCP in the masquerade ball of tyranny—and, at worst, a form of plausible deniability for an invitation that many of them had already accepted. Sierra Leone and Liberia were the dress rehearsal for the main event.
Michael P Senger is an attorney and author of Snake Oil: How Xi Jinping Shut Down the World. This article was originally published on Substack.