The Twitter account of Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, has 2.3 million followers, but as of 8 December 2022 it follows just 125 accounts. Most of these belong to the presidents of other countries or are the accounts of the great and the good, including Melinda Gates, António Guterres and Pope Francis.
In addition to these luminaries, though, president Sall – or his staff – also follows the French account of Africa Check.
This evidence of the impact of the work of Africa Check is a matter of pride to Valdez Onanina, the organisation’s Francophone editor.
Africa Check’s office in Senegal has been in operation since 2015, when it had just one member of staff, then- editor Assane Diagne. Now, in the 10th year of Africa Check’s operations, the office has five staffers and two interns.
The organisation faces particular challenges in Senegal. Onanina, who has been editor since 1 September 2022, says the country has no law which enforces access to information.
“So there is no obligation for the government to give us documents. For instance, I wanted to check a claim that Sall built 200 times more roads than his predecessor but it took months to get the information,” Onanina says. (In the end, the claim proved to be untrue.)
For Onanina, the quest to ensure access to public information is personally important. “I need to be in every debate around the law about access to information,” he says.
As to the organisation more broadly, Onanina says that the work done in the seven years of the existence of the Francophone office has been impactful. “It is time to bring this experience into other countries. We have learned that fact-checking is okay, but it is not enough. We need to develop many media literacy projects so that people can be made aware of the danger of misinformation.
“We don’t do easy journalism – we keep having to explain what fact-checking is. But we have the maturity now to try to implement fact-checking into the editorial models of various media in Francophone Africa. We cannot fight misinformation alone,” he says.
In one example of collaboration, the Francophone office has been making videos for high school students together with L'Institut Goethe du Sénégal. The videos take the form of a course, at the end of which participants become junior fact-checkers. “But we need to get into rural areas; we need videos in Wolof with subtitles in French,” Onanina says.
As the work goes on, Onanina is proud of the respect that Africa Check commands. “If you say you are from Africa Check, people say ‘Oh Africa Check – you do good work’.”
Nigeria comes on board
The Lagos office opened in November 2016, with one staffer, David Ajikobi. As editor in the region, he now works with a staff of six full-time and one part-time colleague.
He says that when he started the biggest challenge was understanding fact-checking himself. “I had a lot of journalism experience but nothing prepared me for the experience of fact-checking. It is rigorous, painstaking work.”
That means care has to be taken to find the right staff with the right skill sets, which, in Nigeria, need to encompass a wide range of factors.
“We have many different languages, different religions, different cultures. And there are some very traditional African mindsets, where people don’t want to hear that they got something wrong.”
He says politicians in the region are reluctant to take on the concept of accountability. “But if they make claims that are false, and those go into policy documents, then you get bad policy – so fact-checking is a way of enforcing accountability.”
He says it's also important to work in accessible formats, such as audio, video and in-person training. “African culture is a storytelling culture. As fact-checkers we need to get up from our laptops and find ways to get our work in front of people’s eyes and ears.”
Ajikobi celebrates the fact that the practice of fact-checking is growing across the region, and that collaboration is now an important part of Africa Check’s work. “We have a coalition of fact-checking organisations working on the 2023 elections in Nigeria, and that is really important,” he says.
In common with his counterparts in other African regions, he thinks the future lies in the wider work of media literacy. He wants to inoculate people against bad information so that they can do their own investigation of the claims they hear.
An office in Kenya
Africa Check’s Nairobi office was set up in Kenya in 2017. Alphonce Shiundu was appointed as Kenya editor – and now leads a team of five.
Shiundu says the biggest challenge facing the East African office is the quality of data available against which to fact-check statements made by public figures.
“For instance, right now, in Kenya, the ‘most recent’ data on maternal and child health was last collected in 2014 when the last Kenya Demographic and Health Survey was published. We are in 2022,” he says.
Other challenges in Kenya include:
- A tendency to extrapolate data depending on what’s in the news. “When prominent people are diagnosed with, or die of, cancer, suddenly it is an emergency. Yet the cause-of-death data is terrible. In fact, not all deaths in Kenya are registered.”
- People think that if it was written in the newspaper or if it was broadcast on TV, then it must be true. Public figures strive to get their claims in the media, to gain some credibility, but journalists then report these claims without verifying whether they are true or not.
- Regionally, in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia, Shiundu thinks that calling out public figures for inaccurate or misleading claims can land journalists and fact-checkers in trouble.
Beyond the challenges of fact-checking, Shiundu sees a never-ending opportunity in media and digital literacy for young people in the region.
“They must understand how to navigate the internet and social media; know how to identify, debunk and keep off the conspiracy filter bubbles; and how to use all these skills and platforms for socio-economic empowerment without falling prey to the scammers and fraudsters.”
Shiundu points to the number of fact-checking projects launched over the last five years in Eastern Africa.
“Africa Check worked with the NGO Internews to incubate a fact-checking project in Ethiopia, at a time of risky political volatility and a ravaging global pandemic. This is one of the things I look back on with pride. I have to appreciate the courage, resilience, passion and determination of all our colleagues from Ethiopia Check who signed up, and continue to hold power to account under very difficult circumstances. Without them, such a project would be difficult.”
South African challenges
Africa Check’s first office opened in South Africa in 2012. These days it is the responsibility of Lee Mwiti, the chief editor of the English-language website. He says that over the last five to ten years there’ve been some notable changes in the fact-checking landscape in the country.
“There’s been a sharp rise in hyper-partisanship in public debate, with the attendant polarisation and echo chambers. A lot of this is propped up by disinformation and a loss of trust in information providers. Populist leaders and fringe actors now have platforms to turn manufactured popularity into legitimacy, and influence policy,” he says.
All of that means there is now an increased risk for offline harm, with minority and under-protected groups such as immigrants targeted in real life.
Despite that, there is also an increased appreciation that the challenges of bad information require a whole-of-society response. “We have seen a sharpening focus by government, civil society and individuals interested in accuracy.”
He says this creates space for better resourcing, collaborations and interventions which can include research, media literacy and training.
Impact and outreach across the continent
The focus on media literacy is an extension of the organisation’s decade-long fact-checking work. When it comes to “pre-bunking”, Mwiti notes that Africa Check has identified patterns.
“For instance, if you break an election down into phases, you can almost predict what kinds of misinformation will be around at any given phase. Given that we know that, we try to tailor our work towards giving resources to audiences and to journalists, so that they can be more empowered and not fall so easily for things that are shared. We are building the ability of audiences to be more resilient to misinformation.”
For Africa Check’s head of outreach Dudu Mkhize, this work is critical. “Fact-checking used to be mainly an editorial job: identify a claim, fact-check, produce a report, make a verdict,” she says.
But the fact-check never has the same reach as the original claim, despite its inherent value in correcting the public record and providing additional context around the specific claim. ”Media literacy is important. It gives the public the necessary skills to navigate the information landscape.”
The outreach team has five members, but also leans on editorial staff, especially in other country offices. Their work includes fact-checking training, media literacy and running the Africa Facts Network, the aim being to foster fact-checking skills among the public, particularly young people, and to help develop a community of nonpartisan fact-checkers across the continent.
Hlalani Gumpo, the organisation’s impact manager, says those collaborations have other challenges.
“For instance, we’ve learned there are differences between Anglophone and Francophone Africa – we worked with local radio stations to do interactive radio drama. That was harder in Senegal than in Nigeria. For example in Senegal, we experienced the challenge of making translations into the locally spoken Wolof language that is non-formal , plus the radio infrastructure is not as good. Our responses from audiences were much fewer and slower.”
All that said, Gumpo says she feels privileged to work at Africa Check. “Our work matters, people make real-life decisions based on the work that we do.”
In addition to that impact on the lives of individuals, Mwiti says Africa Check has raised the overall awareness of the importance of accurate information, and the threats to society when public debate is polluted.
“Despite our successes in the past decade, in many ways it feels like the journey is only beginning,” he says.