Mary Alexander COMMENT: Africa Check makes me angry – and hopeful

We’re said to live in a post-fact world, where there are no longer any gatekeepers of truth. But it’s more a world of openly free-flowing fact and fiction, sorted by new and more transparent gatekeepers – the fact-checkers.

“Kenyan girls forced into sex in exchange for sanitary products.”

We all react emotionally to falsehoods. But after more than six months of editing copy at Africa Check, this was the first time I got angry.

“Exclusive: Research by Unicef finds 65 per cent of females in the Kibera slum had traded sex for sanitary pads.” The claim was in the Independent, a UK news site that describes its work as “free-thinking journalism”.

Editing each report I’ve become intimate with difficult but correct facts, unpleasant lies and strange hoaxes about the continent. I’ve been saddened by the high number of awaiting trial prisoners in Nigerian jails. I’ve been annoyed by a South African minister’s misleading statement about the after-school education most likely to get young people jobs. I’ve even been amused by attempts to discredit Africa Check’s fact-checks.

Statistic pulled from thin air

But this time I got angry. The statistic was so obviously false. Sixty-five percent of all girls and women in Kibera, a settlement of 170,000 people – according to Kenya’s 2009 census, but likely many more – had sold transactional sex for sanitary pads? The scale of the research needed to establish this fact must have been staggering.

Turns out there was no research. The claim was rubbish.

Or as Africa Check’s deputy editor Lee Mwiti more calmly put it: “Unicef and UK newspaper pull stat from thin air”.

The Independent’s “exclusive” was, I assume, an attempt to expose a harsh reality in an African country so as to prompt the compassion of more fortunate people elsewhere. Instead, it stripped human dignity from ordinary people, simply because they were poor. It smacked of Live Aid.

Was it sloppy journalism? Who knows. But the article’s lede was blatantly untrue, making it as legitimate as this, this, this, this, this and this.

The Gerber baby food hoax

I was unexpectedly reminded of the Independent’s article one Sunday afternoon as I idly binge-watched old episodes of QI. It’s one of Britain’s more respected comedy quiz shows, said to have extraordinarily brilliant researchers.

But in one episode the host, Stephen Fry, said this: “Unfortunately, in Africa, most people are unable to read.”

It’s a breathtakingly sweeping statement about more than a billion people on a continent which recognises 55 countries.

Fry had asked the panel what terrible advertising mistake Gerber had made when they launched their baby food “in Africa”. QI’s answer was that it put photos of cute babies on the jars, which led those illiterate Africans to believe the jars contained actual bits of baby.

The episode was from 2003 – so 15 years ago. Snopes has described the claim as “cultural prejudice at its worst” and traced it to a Harvard Business Review article published in 1984, almost 20 years before the episode of QI aired.

What came before the post-fact world?

I doubt QI would get away with the statement today. Yet we’re said to live in a post-fact world where there are no gatekeepers of fact and the global leaders lie without hesitation.

But “post” means “after”, so the “post-fact world” would have to come after the “fact world”. And there’s never been such a thing.

Leaders have always lied: they just did it less publicly. The old gatekeepers were selective in the facts they let through. Where we now live is in a world of freewheeling information, where almost anyone is at liberty to communicate their knowledge and ideas with other people. A lot of this information is rubbish. But at least today the truth, as they say, is out there. And so are the fact-checkers.

Anyone who hopes to be taken seriously should now pause before making statements as outrageous as that African people thought jars of Gerber baby food were packed with dead babies, or that two-thirds of the females in one of Africa’s largest urban settlements exchange sex for sanitary pads.

The world has new gatekeepers. And that makes me hopeful.

Mary Alexander is Africa Check’s copy editor. Visit her blog, South Africa Gateway.

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