Peter Cunliffe-Jones COMMENT: Fighting falsehood, reducing harm? Lessons from Africa’s complex countries

As Africa Check founder Peter Cunliffe-Jones steps down as executive director, he reflects on how the misinformation landscape has changed in recent years, and argues for a more holistic approach to tackling false claims.

“We can’t forgive the person who started this rumour,” said Aminu Ahmed Tudun-Wada, chairperson of the Polio Victims Trust in Kano, northern Nigeria, as his son left the courtyard.

He had contracted poliomyelitis as a child in 1963, a few years before the polio vaccine became available in Nigeria, leaving him unable to walk. In 2002, when his son Umar was born, an unfounded rumour about polio vaccination spread in the region and led authorities to ban the vaccine. Soon afterwards, baby Umar contracted polio too.

I was then living in Nigeria as bureau chief of the AFP news agency. Over the next few years, I followed reports of how false claims about polio vaccines (we didn’t use the term “fake news” then and should not now) led to a surge in the number of polio cases in Nigeria and surrounding countries. Thousands of victims – of polio, but also of misinformation.

I would later learn how a rumour about the tetanus vaccine started in 1994 at a meeting in Tanzania would spread to countries as far apart as Senegal and Kenya. Tetanus is a bacterial disease that causes muscles to tighten painfully. When it affects the jaw, people battle to breathe and can die. The false rumour about the vaccine means Kenya is one of just 16 countries that have not yet eliminated maternal and neonatal tetanus. And it is estimated that on average one Kenyan child dies from tetanus every day.

Almost two decades since the polio vaccine rumour spread, it might seem that the problem of misinformation has only worsened. Then rumours spread slowly, peer-to-peer on the human grapevine and on to the media. Today they fly via social media. This month alone has seen false rumours shared on Facebook stirring social and religious tensions in Nigeria, scamming people to pay for non-existent jobs in Kenya, announcing the death of a still healthy religious leader in Senegal and trying to stir resentment in South Africa.

The 2019 elections in Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa have all been information battlegrounds. Tactics have ranged from politicians distorting statistics to smears of political opponents, and from drives to suppress the vote to efforts to undermine faith in election outcomes. The revelation of the role of the firm Cambridge Analytica in past votes in Kenya and Nigeria has led to much speculation about the impact of disinformation on the recent polls.

But since 2002, some things have changed for the better. For one, misinformation is now widely recognised as a major problem worldwide and so is the focus of greater attention. What should we, and others concerned about these problems in countries from the DR Congo to Zimbabwe do about them?

Stepping down today seven years after launching Africa Check I take away four lessons, and a question.

1. Say what is right, not just what is wrong

In 2018, Africa Check organised a debate in Senegal on access to reliable information about public health. This information ranged from the prevalence of key diseases to what is spent on public hospitals. Even policymakers are often in the dark, yet health ministry officials failed to show up. And the picture is the same on the other side of the continent, in Kenya, where our team has struggled in recent weeks to get data on maternal mortality.  

“It is not that data does not exist,” I wrote in Africa Check’s first blog post, in 2012. “It does… But nevertheless, accessing that information is still harder than necessary and the quality of the data is not what always it should be. So, it will, I am sure, be a challenge.” It was and so it remains as we heard when Africa Check brought a dozen fact-checking initiatives together in Johannesburg in November 2017.

This is a particular challenge because fact-checking, in my view, is not only about calling out what is wrong but also showing what is right. This is why, earlier in 2019, Africa Check launched a new beta version of Info Finder, a tool aimed at making it easier for the public and policy-makers to find reliable information on a wide range of topics. It is why we will be working with the Open Data Institute on a project to open up data in Africa over the next three years. Providing information citizens and policymakers can trust is vital.

2. Look for the kernel of truth in a false claim

Yet being ‘right’ is often not enough to win arguments. I thought about this recently in South Africa when I asked an elderly couple how things were going. I heard a litany of woes, starting with: “Electricity has got so much worse in the past 20 years.” Apartheid ended in 1994, but we all knew what they meant. And with the country suffering frequent power outages, many would agree there are problems.

Do these mean electricity supply generally has “got worse” since 1994? It depends on where you start from – as an individual.

In 1994, as this Africa Check factsheet found, almost 100% of white households had access to uninterrupted power supply but only 37% of black households had the same. Overall, 54% of households had access to electricity. The comparable number in 2017 was 87%.

So whether electricity has “got worse” or “got better” depends on which end of the telescope you look at it from. Statistics often provide a correct national picture, but people live their lives locally. And we need to acknowledge that, or readers will dismiss our fact-checks. As this 2010 study showed, if we acknowledge our readers’ lived experience, or the kernel of truth in a flawed argument, our fact-check findings are more likely to be accepted.

3. Journalistic fact-checking alone is not enough

Independent fact-checking organisations were first established in the early 2000s in the United States as specialist units of traditional media. Deploying a journalistic approach to tackling misinformation, fact-checkers investigate claims to establish their accuracy and publish their findings. More than 30 years after my first reporting job, I still see myself as a journalist and there are sound reasons for limiting the approach to this.

But, in my view, if the goal is to reduce the harm misinformation causes in complex countries, such as those Africa Check works in, a more holistic approach is needed.

To achieve its overall goal of improving debate, Africa Check has five key targets. The first four are to:

  • Identify and reduce the circulation of harmful misinformation
  • Ensure accurate information is more widely available
  • Ensure users retain a more accurate understanding of topics it covers
  • Foster fact-checking skills and awareness among the wider public

In the first three months of 2019, our work reached an estimated 86.5 million people via traditional journalistic fact-checking, according to media monitors Newsclip. But as well as identifying misinformation, we also work to reduce the supply at source by reaching out to public figures and institutions to seek corrections and discuss an evidence-based approach to communication.

We also work with traditional and social media. Since 2015, Africa Check has trained over 2,000 newsroom journalists. As a result, as one respondent to a 2016 academic study said: “My writers now know they have to verify facts.” And to improve the fact-checking skills of the wider public, we are reaching out to schools, and recently brought in a new head of education and training, Carina van Wyk, with a great background in training work, to help develop a curriculum for teaching news literacy to young people.

4. Harness the power of other communities

Africa Check works in four countries with a team of just 30 people. The need we seek to meet is continental. For this reason, Africa Check has – since we were launched – sought to meet a fifth target of building a network of non-partisan fact-checkers across the continent and working with wider communities.

To build our Info Finder and make it a truly transformative tool, we seek to work with panels of independent experts, tapping into specialist knowledge we could not have. To develop fact-checking beyond the four countries we work in, we provide training and mentoring to newsrooms, are this year running our sixth annual African Fact-Checking Awards, and since 2017 bring together emerging fact-checking organisations including Pesa Check in Kenya, Dubawa in Nigeria, Congo Check in DR Congo and ZimFact in Zimbabwe.  

The growth of the fact-checking community in Africa is remarkable (and will be evident at Global Fact 6 in Cape Town next month), but not enough. As the Ebola crisis of 2014 showed, to reach those most vulnerable to misinformation in Africa, messages may need to be delivered in local languages by peers, not in English or French via a website. We therefore need to engage with those who can reach out at the community level. We’ll be doing that, later this year, with an exciting new project in Nigeria.

So, does fact-checking work?

When most people think about fact-checking, they think of journalistic fact-checking alone. They question whether exposure to a fact-check will persuade a die-hard adherent to one world view to change their minds. (The answer, according to this November 2016 study, is perhaps more than you think.)

My view however is that, to be effective – at least in the types of complex society in which Africa Check operates – fact-checking has to be more broad-based, and encompass a wider range of activities. It’s not just publishing reports, but liaising with traditional and social media, reaching out to public figures and institutions to both correct misleading claims and change the way they communicate, and working with educators and others to put news literacy into schools programmes and build awareness in society. That is what fact-checking needs to be judged on.

On this basis, what is the evidence? The honest answer is it is too early to tell, but my belief is that our impact accumulates over time.

In February 2019, a major South African political party approached Africa Check to fact-check their manifesto before publication – anxious to avoid the reputational damage of adverse fact-checks. (We did not oblige, to avoid partisan advantage for one party.) In Senegal, an economist writing the manifesto for one of the major political parties told a researcher our work means that “those writing the manifestos of the political parties, more and more pay attention to the accuracy of our figures”. Every month we see politicians and institutions correcting false and misleading claims. And we know that, as this study found, teaching the young to spot misinformation works.

Certainly, there are no simple solutions to such complex problems, but my view is a multiple-pronged approach such as ours appears to be the best hope we have of providing an answer. Future generations of people like Umar Tudun-Wada, the young man affected by the 2002 polio vaccine scare in Nigeria, deserve that we try.

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