Kate Wilkinson Why we fact-check mermaids, lion pictures & urban myths

Fact-checking can be serious business but we don’t shy away from its lighter side. The wild and wacky are fair game and they serve an important purpose, too.

On any given day at the Africa Check headquarters we’re wading through databases, hunting down experts, trawling Google for hard-to-find reports and deciphering statistical studies.

This is the basis of our work. It’s how we fact-check claims ranging from “transformation denialism” and white poverty in South Africa to claims about missing children and obesity.

But every now and then we like to take a break from the heavy stuff and look at something a bit more… out there.

We’re not above fact-checking whether criminals are planting nail-riddled oranges on South African roads to hijack motorists. (They’re not). We were game to verify the authenticity of stories about lions attacking poachers and prophets. (They were hoaxes.) And not even a story about mermaids being found in South African President Jacob Zuma’s pool was off limits. (Also a hoax, unsurprisingly.)

Fun fact-checks serve an important purpose

We’ve got a fair bit of grief for these fact-checks. They are low-hanging fruit, some say. Others have teased us asking when we’re going to fact-check if God exists.

Fun fact-checks such as these offer us a break from hard data but they also serve another, important, purpose.

On our website’s tips and advice page, we tell would-be fact-checkers that “most people show some reluctance to accept evidence that goes against what they believe. And there are some that no amount of careful argument and linking to evidence will convince.”

That’s why some African National Congress supporters may have found it difficult to accept our fact-check of their party’s misleading use of water statistics. And why Democratic Alliance supporters didn’t take kindly to a fact-check of their party’s claims about unemployment. In both cases their beliefs – and maybe even their identities – are invested in these “facts” being true.

Spiked oranges, lion hoaxes and mermaids are less contested than claims about health, the environment, unemployment and service delivery. Most people are not personally invested in the existence of the former – although we have received many strongly worded “mermaids are real” comments.

Fact-checking process doesn’t change, only topic

These fun fact-checks are a “gateway drug” into the fact-checking world. They show readers how we interrogate and fact-check claims on uncontroversial issues.

We follow the same process whether we are fact-checking the existence of mermaids or a claim about the economy. We track down the source of the claim. We consult the most recent and reliable data. We speak to experts. We double-check our findings. We link to everything. It is not the process that changes – only the topic.

If people can follow and understand the fact-checking process we undertake on these less serious claims, we hope they’ll be more likely to follow and understand the outcome of a fact-check that challenges their beliefs.

So the next time you see claims about mermaids, spiked oranges or prophet-mauling lions, please send them to us. We’re always up for some fun!

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