Dancan Bwire and Grace Gichuhi Job scams, fake cures and dodgy photos – a year of fact-checking Facebook in Kenya

Social media can be an open highway for false information. Dancan Bwire and Grace Gichuhi, researchers from our Nairobi office, look back on a year of exposing quacks, liars and fraudsters for Facebook’s third-party fact-checking programme.

We’re based at Africa Check’s Kenya office in Nairobi, and work with colleagues from Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa on the Facebook third-party fact-checking programme.

This is a partnership between Facebook and fact-checkers verified by the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network.

Its aim is simple: to reduce the spread of false information on Facebook.

Understanding the FB programme

This is how it works. Facebook uses a combination of human judgement and technology to push content – ads, photos, memes, videos, articles and posts – flagged as possibly false to a special interface. This is the FB fact-checking “tool”.

Signals for possibly false content include user reports, comments featuring words such as “fake” or “false”, and Facebook’s algorithms that seek out posts previously identified as wrong.

And if we come across false claims that the tool hasn’t identified, we can add and rate them – a process, in the programme’s jargon, known as “enqueuing”.

How claims are rated

We research the claims, write up a report with our findings, publish the report and then rate the claim on the fact-checking tool.

Facebook asks us to rate claims with the following verdicts: false, partly false, and true. We can also rate possibly false claims that are actually just satire and opinion – or aren’t eligible for fact-checking – but can’t research and write reports on them.

Africa Check’s verdicts are a little different. If we can’t identify an intention to mislead, we rate a claim “incorrect”. If we see a deliberate lie, we rate it “false”. Scams and photoshopped images – and fake documents – get a “fake”. Posts that twist the truth are rated “misleading”. Then there are the hoaxes, which seem to be posted just for the attention.

A rating of “false” reduces the distribution of that piece of content, so fewer people see it on Facebook. The tech firm estimates that the circulation is dented by up to 80%. (Note: For more on how it all works, read Facebook’s guide.)

More important claims, in Kiswahili

An employee arranges a display of smartphones at a mobile phone shop in Nairobi in November 2018. Many Kenyans are on social media. (Photo: SIMON MAINA / AFP)

We’ve been part of the programme for just over a year now.

In that time we’ve seen an improvement in the importance, and quality, of flagged content in the tool’s Kenyan queue. These are claims posted or shared by Kenyan Facebook users. They can also be sorted by language.

There’s been an uptick in flagged content in Kiswahili, one of the most widely spoken languages in East and Central Africa.  

Here are a few of the things we’ve learned, fact-checking Facebook in 2019.

1. Fraudsters prey on the jobless

We’ve exposed dozens of scams targeting desperate job seekers in Kenya, a country with high youth unemployment. It’s often felt that fraudsters are free to run amok on the platform.

No organisation – public or private – has been spared the avalanche of false ads, with public relations departments kept busy calling them out. It is by no means a Kenya-only headache. Organisations in South Africa, where unemployment is also high, have also been victims

Some ads ask job seekers for “registration” or “application” fees. Others tell Facebook users their chances of being hired will be improved if they share the ads “widely”, or comment on the ad with their phone numbers or bank details, presumably to harvest personal data.

2. False health information causes real harm

We’ve also debunked bogus cures for health conditions. Many Kenyans struggle to access quality healthcare, making these “home-made” cures popular. 

Some claims are easily identified as in-country. But other claims started their journey elsewhere, before being widely shared in Kenya. An example is the well-travelled but incorrect and dangerous advice that “cough CPR” will save your life if you have a heart attack when you’re alone.

Other health misinformation is resilient – including a 25-year old claim falsely linking tetanus vaccines to a mass sterilisation programme. 

This type of misinformation is disheartening – people do change their behaviour based on in it, and in many cases it is unlikely to end well.

3. Faked images and real photos used as false evidence

As it is everywhere, misinformation in Kenya is highly visual. Our experience of the more exotic examples of this ranges from “strange creatures” spotted in Kenyan towns, to the unlikely offspring of humans and sheep. Special effects creations, horror movie scenes, or simply animal deformities are also posted with false claims. 

Many of these fakes appear when a news story is trending. The distressing deaths of a mother and her daughter, when their car slid off a ferry on the Mombasa coast in late September, spawned a lot of these. One used photos from an underwater art museum in Mexico to make false claims about the recovery efforts.

Some were just ridiculous – such as a photo of a record-breaking crowd at a 1973 US rock concert falsely captioned as supporters at a rally for a politician in rural Kenya, in 2019. 

4. Nope, that famous person hasn’t died

False death reports are common on social media everywhere, and this year Kenya would not to be outdone. No one was spared: celebrity musicians in Kenya and in Tanzania, global icons, even former top public officials of Kenya’s electoral commission. 

Many Facebook users do not check this information. And the families – and fans – of the not-deceased often find these reports distressing.

It’s easy enough to check the social media accounts of celebrities reported as dead, or to look for credible reporting in the mainstream media.

What we’ve learned – and what you can do

There’s a real need for Facebook users to learn digital and media literacy.

Here are a few quick steps you can take to find out if what you’ve seen on Facebook is, in fact, true.

Do some legwork. Mangled grammar, spelling mistakes and dodgy dates on a Facebook post are often signs that a job ad, for example, is phoney. It’s also unlikely that a legitimate recruitment process would ask applicants for money.

But some are not obvious – so check if that ad you’ve seen for a job is also on the company’s official site, or call to find out if they are hiring. Not checking could cost you money.

If you’re sick, go to a treatment centre for medical advice. Beware the quick cure, especially if it’s touted as a “natural” cure – a top selling point in Kenya.

If information you see on Facebook makes you emotional, pause. Then double-check. Read this Africa Check guide on how to stop falling for fake news and these tips on how to vet information on WhatsApp.

And take a look at these tips from Facebook on how to spot false information.

See you in 2020, when we’ll tackle misinformation on Facebook all over again!

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