David Ajikobi COMMENT: 3 days, 21 sessions, 186 fact-checkers & me

Relatively new to fact-checking, David Ajikobi joined 186 other delegates in Madrid, Spain, in early July for the fourth Global Fact summit. The peer discussions, fact-checking collaborations and new tools demonstrated recharged his fact-checking drive.

Getting my name tag at the start of the fourth Global Fact summit made me realise I had the only one displaying “Nigeria” as home country.

Listening to three days of debates, it then struck me how important this kind of work is to countries like Nigeria – the world’s most populous black nation. In subsequent years, I hope there will be more of us from Nigeria at this annual gathering.

So what did I learn from Global Fact 4? Here are my 4 key takeaways from Madrid.

1. Fact-checkers, we are not alone!

global fact summit
Global Fact 4 delegates at the July 2017 summit in Madrid, Spain. Photo: Mario Garcia.

In his opening remarks, Alexios Mantzarlis, head of the International Fact-Checking Network and organiser of the summit, spoke of the critical work fact-checkers are doing across the world. Just four years ago, this was a tiny group, but today they range from Africa Check in South Africa, Senegal, Kenya, and Nigeria to Chequeado in Argentina, Fact-Nameh in Iran, Teyit in Turkey and 122 more in 49 countries.

Seeing attendees share experiences and discuss the different challenges faced in different countries, gave a sense of both the common goals and obstacles we have to overcome – from officials withholding data to lack of access to tools, funding and means of reaching more people.

The “show and tell” session on day 2 illustrated new fact-checking formats different organisations are adopting and it got me thinking of novel ways to reach more people in my home country of Nigeria.

For example, Julien Pain of France Info showed how he takes to the streets of France to meet ordinary people and do a live debunking of fake news. Alberto Puoti, the producer of a fact-checking show on Italian TV, played a clip in which the former Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, was fact-checked live on air! In the US, the Washington Post’s Fact-Checker column created a visual tally of falsehoods uttered by President Donald Trump.

But fact-checkers need allies and there was a generally recognised need for platforms and search engines like Facebook, Twitter and Google to do more to tackle the false claims and “fake news” that spread on their networks. Their representatives spoke about trial projects they have launched, partnering with or flagging the work of fact-checking organisations, but provided frustratingly little data on the projects’ impacts.

2. Fact-checking 3.0 – a focus on public understanding

Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute gave perhaps the most interesting talk of the meeting, urging fact-checkers to move away from focusing primarily on checking single claims politicians and others make. Instead, he suggested, we address issues in public debate as a whole – with fact-checks, explainers and quizzes, among other things, to enable readers to decide issues for themselves.

david ajikobi
David Ajikobi speaking to Satoshi Ukai, the New York bureau chief of The Asahi Shimbun, a daily newspaper in Japan, during one of the speed meetings at Global Fact 4. Photo: Mario Garcia

As he did in a Q&A with Mantzarlis earlier this year, Rosenstiel argued that doing this will make fact-checkers more proactive, advance public understanding and address the “partisan polarisation that threatens to weaken fact-checking [in the United States] in future”.

Rosenstiel suggested re-drawing the way we work will help build a knowledge-base around issues people care about. I couldn’t have agreed more. Public debate in Nigeria often quickly becomes personality-based, diminishing critical underlying issues.  

A few initiatives do get this. For example, Africa Check provides factsheets that are popular among readers, from one on Nigeria’s many exchange rates to the cost of providing “truly” free secondary education in Kenya and statistics on farm attacks and murders in South Africa. And we have trialled a first “informational” quiz. Chequeado’s “explainers” do the same in breaking down issues for their readers while the UK’s FullFact takes a similar issue-based approach.

3. Taking our work to the classroom

Fact-checking should, of course, be seen as a life skill. And a session on “fact-checking in the classroom” shared stories of fact-checking initiatives that aim to raise the level of students’ critical thinking.

The most interesting one for me was explained by Matt Oxman of the Centre for Informed Health Choices. He who showed how they had helped Ugandan schoolchildren between the ages of 10 and 12 learn to assess bogus health claims, developing their critical thinking skills in the process. This is something our director has touched on before. Other educational initiatives are being carried out by Factcheckers.it in Italy, Agência Lupa in Brazil and others.

Africa Check is also exploring similar projects with Argentinian fact-checkers Chequeado and a partner in South Africa and hope to announce on those soon.

4. Adhering to our code is key

All this effort is in vain, however, if fact-checkers cannot be trusted to be fair, honest and non-partisan ourselves. How do we ensure everyone is on the same page regarding transparency and non-partisanship? I often ask myself these questions.

The IFCN code of principles was made for this. Developed in 2016, each organisation that is a signatory has to commit to upholding five core principles of nonpartisanship and transparency about their funding, use of sources, methodology and corrections process.International Fact-Checking Network

Their adherence to the code is then vetted by an independent assessor and the findings made public.

Africa Check’s executive director, Peter Cunliffe-Jones, who currently chairs the interim IFCN board, explained what the IFCN learnt from this process so far. By late June, 25 fact-checking initiatives had been verified while 23 others were pending verification. (Africa Check became a verified signatory on 8 March 2017.)

The consensus is that the code is critical to our work in the fact-checking community. Govindraj Ethiraj, founder of FactChecker.in, India’s first dedicated fact-checking initiative said the code standardises openness. He calls it an “ISO standard of sorts” for fact-checkers.

Global Fact 4 was a humbling, eye-opening experience for me. Some pointers I took away from the conference have already begun to take shape in my work as Nigeria’s first full-time professional fact-checker.

(For this time, meeting the lovely Madrileños of Madrid, or “el Foro”, was a highlight too!)

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