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COMMENT: Takeaways from a year of carrying the fact-checking flag

“Fake news” doesn’t adequately define the full range of misinformation and disinformation. But this year I learned that the label is surprisingly resilient.

At the BBC Beyond Fake News Conference in Nairobi in November 2018, bloggers, journalists and government representatives accused each other of peddling “fake news”, rather than a wide range of unreliable information.

So when I led fact-checking workshops, I made sure to point out the different kinds of misinformation and disinformation: satire, propaganda, bad journalism, manipulated content, false connections, false context and more.

The blanket “fake news” definition can blind us to important realities. In a survey of digital news consumers in 37 countries, the Reuters Institute for the Study in Journalism at Oxford University found that 42% had come across poor journalism, 39% had experienced spin (where facts were twisted to push an agenda), 31% had seen the term “fake news” used to discredit the news media, but only 26% could give examples of stories that were completely made up.

What harm can misinformation and disinformation cause?

A prominent example of harm is compromised elections, but in workshops the best feedback from trainees came from non-political examples of unreliable information.

Public health campaigns flounder when misinformed people do not participate. In 2003 false rumours led to a boycott of Nigeria’s polio vaccination campaign. Brazil has struggled to meet yellow fever vaccine targets, and the European Union has had to increase awareness of the importance of the measles vaccine after outbreaks caused, in part, by misinformation and disinformation.

When the Associated Press wrongly tweeted that President Barack Obama had been wounded in an attack on the White House, the Dow Jones briefly plunged, showing the economic effect of misinformation.

In India, WhatsApp rumours of child abductions led to several murders.

Learning to find the facts

Still images and video constitute a large part of misinformation and disinformation in East Africa. In September a ferry capsized on Lake Victoria, killing 207 people, but one widely shared picture was in fact from the coast of Libya during the 2016 migrant crisis.

Trainees appreciated the power of the reverse image search as a tool that can be used on any device, including a mobile phone, to check whether an image has been published before. Another option is error level analysis, which shows if a photo has been manipulated with Photoshop. It was satisfying to hear the gasps when I revealed the original source of a manipulated photo!

Many trainees wanted to know where to find reliable information. At Africa Check, we mainly use official figures from statistical agencies, government publications, reports from organisations such as the United Nations and journal papers published by experts. But as we learned, even publications by credible organisations are not necessarily error-free.

A lot of information can be gleaned from public sources - sometimes with surprising results. Kenyan government gazette notices revealed not only monthly state salaries, but also the surface area of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park.  

Legislation can be a source of financial information not available on county websites. Regulators such as the Water Services Regulatory Board may have information on individual water companies. And an auditor-general’s report could reveal the revenue figures of an organisation with no annual report.

Working in a busy newsroom

Participants showed huge interest in the role fact-checkers can play in a busy newsroom. If people who make claims can’t provide evidence when asked, this lack of evidence should be noted in stories while the fact-checking process continues.

Fact-checking a newsmaker during a live interview can be done with prior preparation, but any unanticipated claims that were not queried during the event can be revisited once the fact-checking is done.

And when all else fails, you can always send a claim to your favourite fact-checkers.

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