COMMENT: Raising the cost of lies, across continents
The jacaranda trees that spread along Buenos Aires’s broad boulevards are in bloom, lilac-shaded blossoms covering the branches and scattering the pavements. Unlike most other visitors to the city this month, the sight reminded me of tree-lined streets thousands of kilometres away in Johannesburg, South Africa.
I was in Buenos Aires to participate in LatAm Chequea, the first-ever gathering of journalists from across Latin America to talk fact-checking, and the sort of work we do at Africa Check.
Fact-checking developed as a major new force in journalism in the United States in 2004 with the creation of the website www.factcheck.org, followed a few years later by www.politifact.com. In 2009 it spread to Latin America when a small group of friends in Argentina – none of them journalists by training – got together and agreed to found the continent’s first fact-checking website www.chequeado.com.
“Our goal,” one of the founders, Julio Aranovich, told me over a late-night dinner during the conference, “was to improve public debate in our country by raising the political cost of telling lies. We don’t say we will stop the politicians telling lies. But we will and do make it harder. We raise the cost of the lie and the value of telling the truth”.
Claims about crime, companies in common
Driving into the city from the airport, passing along back-roads far from the glamorous boulevards, it was easy for me to see in graffiti scrawled on shop fronts and city walls why fact-checking has taken off as it has in Argentina and much of Latin America.
The comments daubed everywhere along the route are evidence of a deep lack of trust both in politicians to tell the truth and in traditional media to report it. Fact-checking is a response to this.
So what sort of claims do the Chequeado team investigate? Are they the same as, or different from, those that Africa Check explores?
I asked Olivia Sohr, who has been with Chequeado since it was launched five years ago.
Claims about crime are one, she said. In a debate on crime in May, for example, Argentine senate majority leader Miguel Angel Pichetto claimed that foreigners accounted for a fifth of the jailed population. Remarks in any country that link foreigners and crime can, of course, be exploited by some to inflame social tensions so it is always important to know if they are true.
Chequeado investigated and found that, taking account only of the population of federal prisons, in which foreigners are overrepresented, Pichetto was not far off the mark. But across the prison population as a whole, foreigners represent just 6% of the total. It therefore gave the claim a rating of “ENGAÑOSO” – or “misleading”.
Claims about crime are, of course, a frequent topic of debate in South Africa, and so for Africa Check.
Another area we have in common is the investigation of questionable claims made by the heads of major companies.
In August this year, Mariano Recalde, the head of the famously opaque state-run airline Aerolíneas Argentinas, claimed that the company, long accused of being opaque in its financial dealings, had put all its financial records on its website.
Chequeado investigated and found that the records were there, though hard to find, and had not been properly audited. It declared the claim “EXAGERADO” or “exaggerated”.
Government backlash made work harder
And then of course, there are politicians’ claims about their record in government – something of a staple for fact-checking sites everywhere.
A few years ago, Olivia told me, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was talking of her government’s work on social housing. “We are the government,” she declared “that built the most houses in the history of Argentina”.
Really? Well, no. Chequeado investigated and, based on the government’s own official data found the claim to be “FALSO” or “false”.
And in this, they were not alone. The Africa Check team also recently rated a claim made by South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma about his government’s housing programme to be false.
Unfortunately, said Olivia, in the case of Argentina there was a government backlash against Chequeado which has since made their work much harder.
“The publication of this information and the repercussion it had in national media brought a restriction in the information the government provides, making it harder to determine,” she told me.
Entries from 10 African countries
But, hard work or not, the fact-checking continues – and not just in Argentina or South Africa. Today, half a dozen or more fact-checking operations exist in Latin America and fact-checking is taking off elsewhere in Africa too.
Some of those attending the Argentina conference were the in-house fact-checking operations of major traditional media such as O’Globo from Brazil and El Mercurio from Chile, while others were independent web-based organisations such as La Silla Vacia from Colombia and UyCheck.com, a fact-checking website set up recently in Uruguay.
And while Africa Check remains the only independent fact-checking website in Africa to date, it is not the only media carrying out fact-checking on the continent these days.
A few days after arriving back from Argentina, I headed last week to Nairobi, Kenya, to take part in the prize-giving for the African Fact-Checking Awards, launched earlier this year by the AFP Foundation and Africa Check to encourage fact-checking in the African media.
On Friday, we named Edem Srem and Gifty Andoh Appiah of Ghana as winners for a powerful video that exposed misleading claims by the Ghanaian government to have eradicated the damaging practice of alluvial gold mining in the country.
And with entries in from 10 countries – Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe – and runners up from Kenya and Zambia, it is clear fact-checking is growing in Africa too.
Similar best practices for fact-checking
At the conference in Argentina, one discussion that particularly interested me involved fact-checking journalists from Argentina, Italy, the United States and our own Africa Check project. It concerned the way we work and what interested me most was how we had all, in different ways, come to similar conclusions about best practices for fact-checking.
A study by American academics shown to the conference also revealed that traditional media in the United States that carry fact-checking reports are seen as more reliable than those that still shun this growing trend.
Jacarandas, in turns out, can now be found quite widely in Africa these days. Like fact-checking, they are another thing the continents now have in common.
Why fact-checking matters
“There are no ‘facts’ in Africa”