Elections are when we really get to hold our leaders accountable. For 10 years Africa Check has helped keep public debate in election season honest – from vetting claims in party manifestos, debates and rallies to fact-checking social media and building partnerships.
We aim to give citizens accurate information that will help them make informed decisions about candidates and party policies and, ultimately, their own lives.
As we mark 10 years of our mission, our editors in Kenya, Senegal, South Africa and Nigeria reflect on some of the lessons learned.
Lesson 1: Local context is king
Africa is a continent with 55 countries – and even counting them isn’t as simple as you would think. They all have different political, cultural and socioeconomic contexts. Key indicators such as literacy levels, access to information, laws, internet connectivity, social media reach and media freedom vary considerably across these countries.
False information is basically manipulation, an attempt to reduce trust in elections and institutions, and to polarise societies. Think hired influencers rigging Twitter conversations in Kenya, the resilient pro-Biafra disinformation machine in Nigeria, people spreading xenophobic rumours in South Africa, or a web of false information on social media in Senegal.
But all aspects of false information – the people who spread it, as well as motives, platforms and topics – vary significantly from country to country.
At Africa Check we try to understand each country and decide which information strategy works best there, often beyond just fact-checking. For example, we might choose radio to send out fact-checks in one country, and WhatsApp in another. In yet another, we might find that partnering with community figures will have the greatest impact.
Some strategies may work in one country, but not in another. And even in the same country, one approach may work in one election cycle, but be completely ineffective in the next.
Lesson 2: ‘If you want to go far, go together’
“If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” The origin of this proverb is debated, but what is clearer is that at Africa Check we love it when people share our work. We actively seek out partners to help us reach new and diverse audiences. We work with media houses, collaborate with other fact-checkers and with influencers, and partner with tech platforms.
Most recently, we joined the Fumbua collaborative journalism project in the run-up to Kenya’s 2022 general elections. We also partnered with Meta and Twitter to fight election-related false information. Ahead of Nigeria’s 2023 elections, we are doing media outreach, actively fact-checking on TV, and are part of a fact-checking coalition to boost information integrity.
Governments, election management agencies, civil society, charities and anyone else who can help us to create a sustainable, scalable and lasting impact are always welcome.
Lesson 3: Fact-checking alone is not enough
It’s worth repeating that incorrect and false information, which includes propaganda, damages democratic decision making. It slanders individuals and even entire communities, muddies public debate on key issues and leaves societies worse off.
The wave of disinformation can feel like a tsunami. It can’t be held back one claim at a time. It needs a multi-tentacular approach, from media literacy and quality truth-telling journalism to working with institutions to improve the quality of information, and people’s access to it.
At Africa Check we do a lot of prebunking – anticipating false rumours and providing people with the facts about elections long before the information ecosystem becomes cloudy. We have done this in South Africa, in Kenya, in Senegal, in the Gambia and in Nigeria.
We also run fact-checking and verification workshops and masterclasses for journalists and the public. Here we share the skills, knowledge and tools that allow them to fact-check for themselves. We also highlight the role of biases and other reasons why bad information travels so well.
The aim is to reach a critical mass of people who will question the information they come across during – and beyond – elections. In other words, we aim to build the resilience of communities.
Lesson 4: Laws against false information could backfire
There’s a thin line between using laws to fight false information, and stifling free speech. A 2021 study led by our founder Peter Cunliffe-Jones found that while new laws against false information were being passed across Africa, they did not necessarily reduce the harmful effects of misinformation.
There is space for some of these laws. These include laws against hate speech, incitement to violence, suppression of political participation and violation of privacy, and laws that protect minorities and marginalised groups. For many people, the risk of actual harm is real.
But we argue that it’s better to invest in improving people’s ability to assess information, including their media literacy in print, broadcast and online.
Lesson 5: Tackling misinformation on closed social platforms
It is an open secret that social media platforms are some of the biggest sources of false information. We work with tech companies to fact-check claims on open platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But we’re still quite blind on closed platforms like WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram.
Closed platforms have a role: they protect the privacy and security of online activists and people who defend human rights. But bad actors also use them to seed and spread false information.
We’ve come up with ways to slow this spread.
Politicians often use WhatsApp to campaign. Knowing this allowed us to experiment with fact ambassadors. These volunteers sent us any dodgy claims they found in their WhatsApp groups and networks, and then shared the correct information once we had fact-checked the claims.
Our popular What’s Crap on WhatsApp service – a podcast sent out as a voice note – keeps people on the platform updated on our recent fact-checks. It gives them an early signal to new harmful information, and allows them to share the facts with their contacts.
But these efforts barely scratch the surface. More research is needed on how harmful information is spread on closed platforms in different African countries, as we did for Covid-19. And there’s a need to investigate effective ways to tackle misinformation on these platforms – and even on closed groups in open platforms.
Lesson 6: Videos are powerful spreaders of false information
False information runs along many channels, from popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and TikTok to messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal. Some people who spread online disinformation work at internet scale, such as trying to influence search engine results, while others focus on small but important communities. Yet others work offline.
Our experience is that short manipulated viral videos, both shallow (or cheap) fakes and deep fakes, are increasingly part of the political campaign toolkit. We saw this in Kenya in 2017 and on a larger scale in 2022. In June 2022 TikTok videos with false information about the Kenyan elections were found to be spreading mostly unchecked. More fake videos are popping up ahead of Nigeria’s 2023 elections.
In January 2022 fact-checkers across the world sent an open letter to YouTube, asking it to implement the proven strategy of publishing fact-checked information next to videos broadcasting false information.
We have also been part of and listened to conversations about countering false videos – but it’s often like a lot of heat and too little light.
We will keep researching and trying out new ideas on how to combat false information with, and on, video.
Lesson 7: Experiment, innovate, adapt
We know that the people behind false information will always find new ways to seed their work, and make it grow. Their tactics have evolved in recent years, from manipulated photos and videos that are easy to make, to the more complicated use of artificial intelligence, or AI.
The scale of the problem becomes clearer when you consider their many other online tactics: bots programmed to post false information on social media, manipulating search engine results, trolling, fake sock-puppet accounts, microtargeting, fake websites and more.
As fact-checkers we constantly experiment with new ways to keep up. We are currently on a journey towards using AI-led tools to quickly identify and verify claims, and distribute fact-checks.
We’ve also experimented with packaging fact-checks as shareable graphics and videos, and with getting cartoonists, influencers and podcasters to spread the word.
The ever-changing tactics of political disinformation mean fact-checkers must be agile and flexible, always picking up new lessons, trying them out, innovating and adapting. And we mustn’t be afraid to fail.
Lesson 8: Consider ‘strategic silence’ on certain topics
Fact-checking is arduous. It takes time. And resources. And we can’t verify everything we come across, even when we’re asked to.
But not everything is worth fact-checking.
During elections political disinformation is sometimes created to distract fact-checkers from investigating claims with real consequences. This can send us down rabbit holes that don’t add value to the public debate.
The claim may be bait. Once we’ve debunked it, the people who produced it use the fact-check as “proof” that either their opponent said something false, or that independent fact-checkers have caught their rivals in a falsehood. Sometimes, through fact-checking, we accidentally elevate and amplify nonsense.
We’ve realised the value of strategic silence – actively deciding not to respond. We think through every topic we fact-check, its origin and level of engagement, its impact if left unchecked, and how it improves public debate.
Lesson 9: Many parachute in during elections … but the most important work is done between polls
In recent years, with the rise of the idea of “fake news”, many have taken notice.
In the run-up to elections in the countries we cover, different organisations have emerged at crunch time to set up fact-checking projects. Donors often fall over themselves to fund these projects. This focus on accurate information is welcome.
In our experience, some projects that fact-check during elections don’t always do justice to the mission – for three reasons.
First, the projects don’t have a track record, so they have little credibility – a problem in politically polarised countries. And single-funded projects are more easily dismissed as doing the bidding of their donors.
Second, some projects mistakenly approach fact-checking as an interpretation of facts, loaded with their opinions. It is instead the practice of verifying claims using the most recent publicly available information and getting experts on the subject to put the findings in context.
Third, a lot of fact-checking, debunking and prebunking happens well before elections, when policies are being implemented, gaps exposed and solutions thought through. If fact-checkers are to hold public figures accountable, it is more useful for them to begin their work long before elections and, closer to the time, to work with others to stem the flood of false information. (See Lesson 2.)
Working in the relative quiet between elections means projects and organisations will have the time to improve the skills and knowledge needed to identify and understand trends. They will also have time to build relationships with institutions and statistics agencies, and develop a track record that will allow them to engage meaningfully with public figures.
It takes time and a lot of work to build fact-checking projects and organisations up to the point that they have real impact, and aren’t at the mercy of funders seeking quick wins to report.
Lesson 10: Connect with your audience, wherever they are
If we were to distil all our lessons into one, it would be this: actively connecting with our audience. It is important not to talk down to them. We ask readers to submit claims they want fact-checked and listen to their feedback. We strive to always keep our audience at the centre of our work. We also protect their privacy.
Part of this is fact-checking in local languages, which are often excluded despite being far more relevant for many people in Africa. In Nigeria, we also fact-check in Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba and Pidgin. We use Kiswahili in Kenya, Wolof in Senegal, and Afrikaans and isiZulu in South Africa.
We’re constantly developing the capacity to do more, to make our work resonate with our audience and to have an impact on the whole of society.
But when all is said and done, our audience must always remain at the forefront of our work.