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ANALYSIS

Dr Who? The fraudulent underbelly of social media exposed 

Dr Who? The fraudulent underbelly of social media exposed 
The charges against infamous TikTok creator Matthew Lani appear to have been dropped. (Photo: Supplied)

The extraordinary rise and fall of bogus TikTok doctor Matthew Bongani Lani exemplifies the local tsunami of fraudsters claiming expertise that is not their own.

He was the smooth-skinned, smooth-talking TikTok doctor who had hundreds of thousands of South Africans eating out of his hand. “Dr Matthew”, as he introduced himself at the beginning of every video, was the picture of youthful achievement – confidently dispensing medical advice, assuredly directing followers to purchase health products he marketed. Featured on national radio and TV channels, starring in a Gauteng Department of Health Youth Day advert, Matthew Bongani Lani had the world at his feet.

Yet within a month, that reality had been exploded. In its place: the rather pitiful sight of a young man bleeding from the lip being interrogated in the security offices of a Johannesburg hospital, apologising for entering the premises and denying he had ever claimed to be a doctor. That scene followed weeks of revelations progressively busting each lie Lani had told about his educational background and professional expertise.

But through it all, in what online commentators maintain was a display either of sheer brazenness or deep mental illness, Lani would return to make the same claim to his followers: He was telling the truth. Don’t believe everything you hear online. He was a real doctor, and his detractors were “haters” chasing online “clout”. There are still those who believe him – especially now that criminal charges against him appear to have collapsed.

A psychology student turned Aids activist turned doctor

Fake doctor Matthew Lani

A screenshot from footage of Matthew Lani being questioned at Helen Joseph Hospital for impersonating a doctor.(Photo: YouTube)

Lani first seems to have surfaced in the public consciousness in 2021. He features in that year in an episode of the SABC3 human interest talk show Unpacked with Relebogile Mabotja, where Lani was interviewed in the guise of a psychology student at the University of Johannesburg with a shocking story – one in which Lani himself claimed to have been conned. The tale Lani told, which seems impossible to verify, is that a former partner had deliberately infected him with HIV as punishment for ending the relationship, and that Lani went on to successfully sue him in retaliation. (There appears to be no public record of this case.)

This TV appearance seems to have galvanised Lani’s aspirations to become a public figure. To commemorate World Aids Day in 2021, he could be heard on talk radio 702 as part of a feature called South Africans Doing Great Things. Here he was still posing as a psychology student: a “first-year intern clinical psychologist”, to be precise. On radio, he expressed his passion for educating his peers about HIV/Aids, in service of which he claimed to have established an NGO called Greater Than Aids Afrika. No records exist of this NGO being established as an actual entity.

Around this time, Lani also began to attempt to make money off his story, initially via crowdfunding. A first appeal, ostensibly for an HIV destigmatisation campaign, listed him once again as an “HIV/Aids prevention educator and an intern clinical psychologist”. When that bid failed to garner traction, Lani launched a new crowdfunding appeal in March 2022, claiming to be raising money to bulk-purchase sanitary supplies for young women.

“We will be joined by the South African Police Services and other child advocacy groups [and] we will be educating these young girls about Sexual health, Teenage Pregnancy, Statutory Rape and much more,” the appeal read in part.

Exactly when Matthew Lani made the transition from claiming to be a psychology student at the University of Johannesburg to claiming to be a Wits-trained junior doctor is unclear, but the driving motivation seems to have been the growth of his medical-themed TikTok account. Lani was a natural on the video-sharing platform, where he alternated between standard TikTok virality-seeking behaviour – lip-synching to songs, for instance – and the more niche content where he would dispense medical advice and extol the virtues of the slimming pills he sold on the side.

How convincing was ‘Dr’ Lani?

The persuasiveness of Lani’s performance as a doctor rested heavily on props, costume and set. In his videos he was frequently wearing medical scrubs embroidered with his name. He often – too often, in retrospect – had a stethoscope draped casually around his neck. And perhaps most convincingly, he constantly filmed himself in and around Johannesburg’s Helen Joseph Hospital – ostensibly on ward rounds.

As Lani’s TikTok followers swelled to more than 200,000, however, questions began to mount. Indeed, as far back as 2021, a social media user called Gomolemo Seleke had attempted to raise the alarm, pointing out that some of the medical advice being given out by Lani was distinctly problematic.

“He goes around instigating unprotected sex amongst our youth by lying and saying pre-exposure prophylaxis [is] available for teenage girls … Meaning if the girl takes the pills she can have unprotected sex with an HIV positive [person] and not get infected. There is such medication but it is not available for everyone but rather [in] special cases like when a doctor is operating [on] an HIV positive person and when a couple with different HIV statuses wants a child. So the self-proclaimed Doctor is lying that the pill is available for everyone instead of promoting condoms,” Seleke wrote.

One of the entities fooled by Lani has, in retrospect, caused special outrage: the Gauteng Department of Health. For Youth Day 2022, the department featured Lani in a since-deleted special video paying tribute to young medical professionals. The fact that Lani was happy to comply with this promotion, despite surely knowing the attention it would draw from actual doctors, speaks volumes of how deep he seems to have been into his deception at this point.

Indeed, to some degree Lani was simply hoist by his own petard. He might never have been exposed, were it not for the fact that his claims about his personal background grew increasingly bizarre and implausible. In recent months on TikTok, no longer satisfied with simply being a junior doctor, he slashed several years off his actual age in order to claim that he was also a prodigy who had skipped three grades at school and completed his medical school training at Wits in order to graduate by the age of 21.

What prompted this kind of unnecessary hyperbole on top of the existing vast fiction of his personal story? Observers are split between the theories of arrogance and genuine mental illness, although the former seems more likely in the context of how extraordinarily media-savvy Lani has revealed himself to be at every stage of his long con.

In recent weeks, his story crumbled a little more day by day. The claims about where he earned his Matric and university degree were indisputably debunked by the relevant institutions. The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), the Gauteng Department of Health and Helen Joseph Hospital all weighed in to confirm that Matthew Bongani Lani was not a registered doctor. A lesser fraudster would surely have caved at this point. But Lani, impossibly, almost impressively, doubled down. For those wondering how it is possible that the single story of a relatively unimportant fraudster could have gripped the nation for weeks, this is the key: the surreal shamelessness of Lani’s attempts to continue subverting the truth.

Lani was merely a “TikTok name”, he said; he was registered with the HPCSA under his real name (which turned out to be that of another young doctor who has now laid identity theft charges). He didn’t have a Matric certificate, he said, because he had a high school diploma from “Cambridge University” (he doesn’t). In one TikTok video he purported to hang his medical degree on the wall; elsewhere he pretended to display his hospital locker. In another video he showed fake exonerating emails between himself and the HPCSA; in yet another, a confected exonerating text message exchange between himself and a “Buhle from the Department of Health”.

A week after being outed as fake, he was back on TikTok under a different name apologising for the delay in filling orders of his slimming products. “I have been going through quite an emotional rollercoaster ride, but right now I am mentally okay, and we are now preparing your orders … Thank you so much for your orders and for your support,” he told the camera, gesturing to a pile of packaged pills apparently wrapped up for couriering. After being arrested last weekend in action at Helen Joseph Hospital, authorities hoped to finally be rid of Lani – only for the NPA to declare the charges against him currently unwinnable.

There was Lani, in what we can only imagine was in some ways the culmination of all his dreams: addressing the national media, a bank of TV cameras rolling, in a press conference in which he never faltered. A true public figure at last, Lani’s defence now seems to be that his “Dr Matthew” persona was a harmless character created for TikTok entertainment. Any serious wrongdoing he chalks up to the work of rogue TikTok accounts set up to impersonate him. To impersonate the person impersonating being a doctor: this is social media Inception, 2023-style.

Stolen expertise

In recent years, the USA has seen an epidemic of a particular kind of dishonesty. “Stolen valour” is the phenomenon – not unique to the US, but seemingly bizarrely prevalent there – in which people falsely claim a military record, or martial awards, which they did not actually earn.

If South Africa has an equivalent, it is surely “stolen expertise”: the phenomenon in which people falsely claim to have earned academic qualifications or experience in prestigious fields. It is impossible to know exactly how common this is, because there appears to be no central body keeping an eye on it. But every year, without fail, multiple public officials are exposed in this manner.

Medicine may be particularly prone to impostors – a terrifying thought given the consequences. But it is hard to know how else to interpret the announcement from Health Minister Joe Phaahla in June this year that 124 fake doctors had been arrested in South Africa since 2021: something like one per week, and that in itself only the result of a concerted recent campaign by the HPCSA in concert with SAPS.

In recent months, those arrested have been found fraudulently practising medicine everywhere from Kabokweni in Mpumalanga to Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. The accounts, contained in intermittent reports from the HPCSA, are like miniature short stories: “It was established that Ms Zikalala was consulting with members of the public, diagnosing them and prescribing medication to them, which they would then purchase from her health shop.”

How many more Matthew Lanis walk among us? DM   

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    All in the cabinet are imposters so what’s new. Just like Lani when they are exposed they double down and insist they are honest, competent politicians working tirelessly for the people and not deluded chancers enriching themselves.

  • Bob Dubery says:

    Is there a legal protection of the term “Doctor”? I know a man who is a Doctor (not of medicine, not of philosophy, but he has a degree from a good university). He is entitled to call himself “Doctor Smith” (not his real name). He might even go so far as to recommend a diet or a patent “medicine”. After all, he’s a “Doctor”, right?

    There was that “Doctor” who was involved in the anti-lockdown demonstration on a Cape Town beach, who told us there was no such thing as a virus, who then launched into a xenophobic rant in which she claimed that the President is in cahoots with zionists.

    It’s difficult to see how she’s a doctor of anything at all. She claims no formal qualifications (not even from some university that you’ve never heard of ), but there seems to be no way to stop her styling herself as “Doctor”.

    The case against Lani collapsed (or would have) because he never wrote a script, never actually had a patient consult with him. If he’d one either, he could have been charged with practicing medicine without the appropriate registration.

    The health department and radio talk shows (who are more interested in attracting an audience than in the facts of anything) could do a bit more to verify the qualifications of the people they invite to speak. But the title “Doctor” seems to be fair game for anybody to use.

  • Robert Mckay says:

    Haha…the Republicans in New York elected a “Lani” and he is still in Congress. George Santos, Elizabeth Holmes, SBF, Donald Trump…are all cut from the same cloth..

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