In previous years, South Africans have been told that President Jacob Zuma's private home, Nkandla, would be opened for tours. And Malawians have been tricked into believing that their then President Joyce Banda was going to move Lake Malawi to the country's western border with Zambia.
If you’re feeling duped, take solace in the fact that today is International Fact-Checking Day. From now on, fact-checking organisations and people around the world will mark the 2nd of April - the day after April Fools Day - as a day to remember the importance of sorting fact from fiction.
‘A rallying cry for more facts’
“International Fact-Checking Day is not a single event but a rallying cry for more facts - and fact-checking - in politics, journalism, and everyday life,” Poynter explained on a website dedicated to the occasion. People around the world will be marking the occasion.
In Kenya, the Africa Check team will be running fact-checking workshops with students at the Daystar University and the United States International University.
Our Nigerian editor, David Ajikobi, will do the same with graduating student at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism in Lagos.
Over in Senegal, our team will be on West Africa Democracy Radio at 10 am (GMT) talking about their fact-checking work.
Representatives from Facebook, Google, Twitter, First Draft News and UK fact-checking organisation Full Fact will discuss fake news, the misinformation ecosystem and how to respond to it in London.
In St Petersburg, Florida, Politifact will host a game show - called “Are you smarter than a fact-checker?” - where members of the public can test their knowledge of current events by identifying whether news is fake, misleading or accurate.
Taking fact-checking back to basics
Fact-checking can sometimes seem daunting. It’s the subject of academic journal articles titled “The Effect of Fact-checking on Elites: A field experiment on U.S. state legislators”. It’s the focus of university courses around the world. Some people do it as a 9-5 job!
But at its essence - stripped of academics and researchers - fact-checking is rooted in critical thinking. It’s that pause when you hear or read something and a little voice asks “is that really true?”
So to mark International Fact-Checking Day, our team in South Africa decided to take fact-checking back to basics.
Future fact-checkers in training
Working in partnership with the Afrika Tikkun Uthando Centre, a community centre in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, we spent an afternoon training 20 students between 9 and 14 on how to sort fake from fiction on social media.
First I presented different hoaxes that have been shared locally on Facebook, Twitter and the messaging application Whatsapp. The students had to vote if they thought the stories were true or false by moving from one side of the room to the other.
A tweeted picture claiming to show “amazing” rain over the city of Johannesburg sent most of the students scuttling to the “false” side of the room.
“That’s not Johannesburg!” one of them shouted. “It’s too flat!” (He was right.)
But the group was divided on a post shared on Facebook which claimed that a “PRIDE OF LIONS KILLED FIVE POACHERS AND INJURED ANOTHER THREE”.
Five students took their time, debating the pictures and whether the story sounded true. (It wasn’t.)
Fact-checking lions & cyclone pictures
With the children’s curiosity piqued, we then split them into two groups to fact-check stories for themselves.
Africa Check’s editor, Anim van Wyk, and editorial assistant, Ntombi Mthiyane assisted one of the groups to fact-check a series of tweets that showed a large lion wandering Johannesburg’s streets at night.
Braamfontein last night ( Johannesburg) a lion in the city.. we are in Africa pic.twitter.com/zu0wJw2cP3
— Sir_Tequila_club dj (@serTequiladj) April 14, 2016
The other group, led by researcher Gopolang Makou and community manager Laura Kapelari, helped a group fact-check a viral video which supposedly showed a car in Mozambique being washed away by cyclone Dineo.
‘The headline was false’
The groups were encouraged to discuss and interrogate the stories before them. When were these stories posted? Who posted them? What can we do to try find out if they are true?
The students consulted maps and brainstormed phrases to search on Google. They debated whether the lion was photoshopped and if a cyclone could really push a car over. At last they were ready to present their findings.
The images shared of a lion in Braamfontein were actually true! The lion was filmed wandering the streets of Johannesburg for a production. (An early theory had been that it had escaped from the Johannesburg Zoo).
The video of a car being washed away by a cyclone was trickier. While the video was real “the headline was false”, one boy told us. It was actually a video from Pakistan - not South Africa’s neighbouring Mozambique.
A nudge towards critical thinking
“We’re fact-checkers now,” the students told us at the end of the session. They practiced chanting “where is the evidence?” and spoke about the other stories they were going to investigate. The existence of mermaids was high on their list.
Our training has hopefully given them a nudge towards critical thinking and looking for answers. But will they be more careful about sharing news on social media when they don’t know if it’s true?
The majority of the students said they would. (Although one student was honest enough to say that he would still share fake stories if it got him attention and more followers. You can’t get them all, can you?)
You can watch a short video of the training session here. Visit the International Fact-Checking Day website for more information.