Setting the Records Straight The Rise of Africa’s Fact Checkers

From just one initiative in 2014, there were 20 active fact checking initiatives across Africa by 2018. Today, there are 35. What is driving the rise of African fact checkers and what are the implications of this trend? 

In 2007, Yahya Jammeh, then the president of Gambia, announced a cure for HIV/AIDS. In 2013, one in three South Africans were habitual drug users. In 2013, the most expensive South African film ever made, the Idris Elba-starring Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, sustained 12,000 jobs over two years. 70 per cent of Zimbabwe’s men are raising someone else’s children, while, confoundedly, Zimbabwe’s condom use per person is the highest in the world. Tap water in every African country is unsafe for human consumption. Usain Bolt can outrun a mosquito. 

The foregoing are ‘facts’ about Africa you can find in popular mass media. Except these facts are all false. 

Fact checking is a vital field, even more so in an age of populism. The task of separating fact from fiction is never-ending. Yet, fact checking has always existed as a niche endeavour of the journalism landscape. Traditionally, fact checking was exclusively within the purview of news organizations, who had internal procedures for verifying facts prior to publication. Nowadays, even organizations outside the journalism industry conduct fact checking exercises. The practice has grown rapidly—especially across Africa. In 2014, there were around 44 fact checking organizations around the world. Five years later, in 2019, this increased to 18 across more than 60 countries. From just one initiative in 2014, there were 20 active fact checking initiatives across Africa by 2018. Today, there are 35. 

FACT CHECKING: A GLOBAL PHENOMENON 

In 1981, former US president, Ronald Reagan, made the statement, ‘trees cause more pollution than automobiles.’ Consequently, more than any leader in modern history, Reagan launched the modern fact checking industry in the United States: while campaigning to become president, and as president, Reagan was prone to making comments such as that one. After Reagan became president, reporters began checking his press conferences and television statements for factual inaccuracies on a regular basis. However, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the first organizations dedicated to publicly evaluating the truth of political claims emerged. 

In Europe, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, the first seeds of fact checking stretch back to 2005 when the UK’s Channel 4 launched a fact checking blog in the run up to the country’s parliamentary elections. Not long afterwards, fact checkers were active in ten European countries. Since 2012, more than 50 dedicated fact checking outlets have launched across Europe.  

Latin America’s history with fact checking spawns from the paucity of access to public and reliable data. This has led to the propagation of fact checking organizations across Latin America. Fact checking initiatives in the region grew from 25 in 2018 to 39 in 2022. With Spanish being the second most commonly used language across all fact checking initiatives, Latin America’s fact checking initiatives provide an invaluable service. South America’s fact checking also highlights the complexities and influence of diaspora networks on the flow of misinformation. False and misleading content, often generated in the United States, easily finds its way to Spanish speaking communities in Latin America. 

Fact checking is now an integral part of the political reporting landscape in most regions. Whether in the US, across Europe, or in Latin America, there will always be a need for fact checking to hold politicians to account 

FACT CHECKING IN AFRICA: THE EMERGENCE OF GHANAFACT

It was amidst this backdrop of a global, growing interest in fact checking that, in 2019, Rabiu Alhassan setup GhanaFact, Ghana’s first full-time fact checking platform. Speaking to Alhassan, who lived in the UK before moving to Ghana to launch GhanaFact, he recalled: 

There was this new wave of fact checking that was coming up in Europe and South America. And I was thinking to myself if I’m going to come back to Ghana and do the same mainstream kind of journalism—he said, she said kind of journalism—I would want to take up the new challenge of launching a project that would not just report the rhetoric of the powerful, and captains of industry, but to actually delve deeper and inform the public whether whatever was being said was accurate or not. 

Before launching GhanaFact, Alhassan conducted a survey of around 400 people to understand the ecosystem of misinformation in Ghana. More than 90 per cent of his respondents said there was the need for a fact checking organization, with more than 70 per cent saying that they had encountered misinformation in the past year. That same year, GhanaFact was launched. 

Today GhanaFact covers topics of health, the economy, governance and the environment, but politics was always going to be its main mission. The feedback from the survey was overwhelmingly about politics, governance, and maybe business-related issues with a bit of health issues coming in at a distant fourth place. Unsurprisingly, in 2020, GhanaFact was building a team to cover Ghana’s upcoming presidential election. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. ‘We had to come up with strategies to deal with the infodemic,’ Alhassan said. 

THE DIGITAL ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

‘Infodemic’ is listed as a health topic on the World Health Organisation’s website, pointing to how too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments can harm health. Information should come with a warning label. 

The internet has been a double-edged sword for the way information is consumed today. The multitudes of connections—across cities, regions, and countries—has made the flow of information almost seamless. With fewer barriers comes fewer filters and gatekeepers. Hence, the veracity of information present in the digital space can no longer be relied upon. If data is the new oil, then social media is the oil rig, extracting and processing information. Social media platforms occupy a central role in the information consumption diets of many people. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted social media’s importance to sharing information and, equally, how misinformation leads to deleterious effects. But in reality, the information crisis is not a novel phenomenon. 

Research from the Mozilla Foundation highlighted how targeted disinformation campaigns have been used as tools to undermine democracy in Kenya. Mozilla Fellows, Odanga Madung and Brian Obil, conducted research over the course of two months, interviewing influencers who participated in the disinformation campaigns, and collected a vast trove of screenshots, memes, and other evidence. In total, their research uncovered at least eleven different disinformation campaigns consisting of more than 23,000 tweets and 3,700 participating accounts in Kenya. Both researchers found a booming and shadowy industry of Twitter influencers for political hire in Kenya whose main goal is to sway public opinion during elections and protests. Against this backdrop, Twitter went to great lengths to safeguard the health of the debate on its platform during this year’s Kenyan presidential elections. One such measure was to partner with Africa Check, an independent, nonpartisan fact checking organization. 

Given the volume of information out in the digital space, fact checkers often have an uphill battle to contend with. False information can emerge from anywhere. Some are rooted in fact and are simply misconstrued. Others are not. How do fact checkers ascertain the signal from the noise of fiction? Despite the burgeoning nature of Africa’s fact checking landscape, strength can be found in collaborations and connections. 

Ghana Fact is signatory to the International Fact Checking Network, a growing community of fact checkers around the world. ‘The IFCN was of great help, because it opened us up to learning from some of the best fact checking organizations around the world,’ Alhassan said. ‘So, this meant we could rely on colleague fact checkers in around the world to help in debunking misinformation, we could rely on fact-checks that had been produced by other members in the fact checking community in other parts of the world, so it was these networks we created were of great help.’ 

INOCULATING THE PUBLIC AGAINST MISINFORMATION 

While fact checking in Africa may still seem at the periphery of news media as institutions, their operations, activities, and goals are at the heart of journalistic discourse. In their strategies and activities, these organizations have incorporated technologic, data and journalism practices with varying goals, from holding media and politicians accountable to engaging citizens in news production. Fact checking on the continent has grown from its early days. 

The networked nature of online communication allows information, true or false, to spread rapidly, much like a virus. As such, spreading facts among the public before the false information has had a chance to take hold might be a way to ‘inoculate’ the population against false information. Just as a vaccination helps blunt the effects of the contagion, recent research shows awareness about misinformation can help fight misinformation. By shining a light on the tactics used to mislead, the reader is more informed of such tactics and therefore builds up cognitive resistance to it. YouTube now plans to show adverts that educate people about disinformation techniques. A decision following successful research done by Cambridge University.  

HARD TRUTHS

One of the hard truths about fact checking is the labour-intensive nature of the work. In a digital age, the bar to becoming a ‘fact’ is lowered. Anything and everything can become a ‘fact’, and everything and anything potentially needs to be fact-checked (I mean, Garlic cures COVID-19??). Thus, with the volume of information, professional fact checking does not scale easily. As such, many organizations are looking to advanced artificial intelligence techniques to manage the volume of information and to do real-time fact checking as a way to increase the efficacy of their work. Africa Check and Argentina’s Chequeado are examples of such organizations. Like these organizations, GhanaFact sees the potential for digital fact checking tools. ‘We are hoping in the not-too-distant future, we could also be building digital tools,’ Alhassan said. ‘Tools that are built with the nuances of the West African sub region in mind.’  

Nevertheless, how power can be held to account is the most important question of our digitally connected age. This question covers everything from climate change to how state funds are spent. Regulating the actions of persons in positions of power is a mantle recently taken up by fact checkers and is one that requires a dedicated eye on those in positions of power. For organizations like GhanaFact, this also means, being able to ‘connect the dots and think about the actors pulling the strings with regards to spreading of misinformation in whatever jurisdiction,’ Alhassan explained.  

There is no question that the internet has democratized information in unprecedented ways and with, sometimes, less favourable consequences. ‘We want to help get people to not believe all the funny things they are seeing online. But it remains a challenge,’ Alhassan said. The internet, however, is still only one information source. As such, fact checkers like Alhassan see a future in being equally active offline. ‘We are hoping to reach people offline using mainstream media, which according to available data,’ he explained, ‘continues to enjoy overwhelming listenership and viewership.’

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