When we first mooted the idea of recruiting “fact ambassadors”, it looked like a risky endeavour. It was a gamble on the hunch that there were people who wanted accurate information, that there were folks who got annoyed when(ever) silly conspiracies and baseless rumours were passed on as fact in family WhatsApp and Telegram groups.
The nature of such “dark social” or private networks makes it difficult for fact-checkers to know what false and misleading content circulates in these circles. Unless the content is cross-posted publicly on Twitter and Facebook, it can spread invisibly online without being debunked.
As fact-checkers, we need eyes and ears in these spaces.
Our first assumption was that a crowd-sourced approach of using peers to fight misinformation, together with other news literacy initiatives, would keep the information ecosystem less polluted. We also hoped to equip these ambassadors with the skills to detect false information, debunk it, and only share accurate information.
The key question was whether we could identify people with an above-average interest in facts to help fight false information in their networks.
We felt the answer was “yes” – but how? How should we vet these people? What would they get for doing such an important public service? And how would we make sure they didn’t “backslide” and start spreading false information again?
To the first question, the answer was easy: Check their digital footprint to be sure that they shared high-quality accurate content. That they stood up for facts.
To the second question, we offered personal satisfaction, honest debate and public safety as incentives, in addition to a direct association with our brand as a credible fact-checking organisation. And to further incentivise the volunteer ambassadors, we threw in a small monthly stipend for data and airtime for their smartphones.
To that last question, we took a leap of faith. If we got the first two right, that last one didn’t matter.
What happened when we started?
We recruited 160 fact ambassadors in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa in mid-2021 after sifting through hundreds of applications.
We told them about the danger of false information and trained them on the fact-checking process. We also spoke to them about why false information spread – and was believed – online. And we exposed them to intelligent open-source tools to verify images, videos and content online.
Gloria Mwivanda, a final-year student at Daystar University in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, was one of the first fact ambassadors. She recalled a close relative sharing enticing photos of land for sale on their family’s WhatsApp group. Soon another family member shared a video about the same land.
But when Mwivanda checked details about the land for sale, she realised there were pending court cases linked to it. The video was also old. As gently as she could, she laid out the evidence in the family group. If anyone went ahead with the transaction they’d lose money, she warned.
Her relatives had shared the image in good faith, thinking they were sharing an investment opportunity with their kin. But they had not bothered to verify details. After Mwivanda’s intervention, they deleted the posts and have since slowed down on forwarding unverified information, she said.
“I have developed a very keen eye thanks to the [Fact Ambassadors] programme,” Mwivanda told Africa Check. “Being part of this team is a constant reminder to me that not all that we see and hear on social and conventional media is always true. It should be taken with a pinch of salt.”
Erick Odhiambo, a Kenyan data analyst and consultant, had to intervene to stop a jobs scam on a WhatsApp group he shares with friends.
“One of the members shared an advert about jobs in Canada and the group was excited about it. I had to quickly stop the members from applying. The advert was fake,” he told Africa Check.
Job scams are some of the most frequently shared false information in Kenya and Africa Check has developed an easy-to-use guide to help spot and report scams.
For Odhiambo, working as a champion for accurate information with Africa Check has honed his ability to detect misinformation and disinformation.
“My motivation is changing someone's mind to value fact-checking before they share information online. I am in a group where we have developed the culture of only sharing information that we are sure is credible and know the source. This started when I got into the programme. Many people share misinformation unknowingly,” he said.
The fact ambassadors also helped share Africa Check's fact-checks far and wide, slowing the spread of misinformation and disinformation in their social networks.
One friend or family member at a time
We also did a series of videos and collaborated with social-media influencers to share the facts. If the number of views and shares of the videos and the audience feedback were anything to go by, the project was effective.
The fact ambassadors project is an example of Africa Check’s multi-tentacular approach in fighting false information both online and offline.
We have established that fact ambassadors can mainstream digital literacy, spread accurate information and reduce the circulation of false information, one friend or family member at a time.
That counts in the larger goal of improving our individual and collective life outcomes using accurate information.