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GUIDE: Tips for African fact-checkers tackling Covid-19 vaccine misinformation

As countries across the world rolled out Covid-19 vaccines, a recent Africa Facts meeting discussed ways fact-checkers on the continent could counter vaccine hesitancy, anti-vaxx disinformation, and more.

Africa Check launched the Africa Facts network in 2017. This collaborative community of 16 African fact-checking organisations shares knowledge and skills to fight false information on the continent.

The most recent Africa Facts meeting, in February 2021, focused on vaccine related misinformation and how to best to combat it. This is increasingly important as countries around the world vaccinate their citizens against Covid-19. 

Much of the following advice is adapted from a guide published by the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida, and Verified, a United Nations project to improve access to accurate information. 

The guide highlights 12 principles of Covid-19 vaccine communication. These were the focus of the Africa Facts meeting, but are also useful for anyone who publishes Covid-19 vaccine information. You can read them here

First: know your audience 

The principles stress the importance of understanding your intended audience and tailoring your approach to the context you work in. Find out who your audience trusts, what it values and explore its relationship with vaccines. 

Fact-checking is less effective at changing people’s minds when they have already been convinced by false information. This is known as the “continued influence effect”. 

Find out how much vaccine hesitancy there is in your country. People who are wary of vaccines might not be outright anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists. They could just be uninformed, worried, and susceptible to misinformation. Finding and reaching vaccine-hesitant people is a priority. 

The power of pre-bunking

Once you know what’s important to your audience, how do you counter false information about vaccines?

A useful approach is pre-bunking: publishing accurate information before inaccurate claims start circulating. This helps “vaccinate” people against misinformation they may be exposed to later. 

Publish short explainers on topics likely to be targets of vaccine misinformation. For example, a guide on how vaccine trials are run, or an explainer on your country’s vaccine approval safety standards, could help people question claims that vaccines are being "rushed through testing". See Africa Check’s guides to the drug approval process in South Africa and Nigeria

People are more likely to trust misinformation on a topic when it’s the first thing they hear about. Pre-bunking helps us reject false information, because we already know the facts.  

Demystify – the facts aren’t mysterious

Jargon and pseudo-scientific language gives disinformation a veneer of truth. They make the information seem mysterious, too complicated for ordinary people to understand. Misinformation often takes advantage of topics that may be difficult for non-experts to understand. Fact-checkers need to examine the language, and demystify the topic. Use clear definitions, and avoid ambiguity and abstraction

Read our guide on how to communicate uncertainty. 

If you explain each step of a fact-check in a simple way, your reader won’t have to trust that you came to the correct conclusion. The explanation will allow them to get to the conclusion themselves, and make them more likely to internalise it

Experts can help with this, as they might be able to explain the details of a topic better than you can. 

According to Verified and the CIPC, doctors and other health professionals are generally seen as the most trustworthy sources - especially if they are members of the community you want to reach. (Note: This research took place in only four countries – France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom. Africa Check has helped research health misinformation in Africa and Latin America.)

Questions and answers 

A discussion followed the Africa Facts vaccine misinformation briefing. Here are edited answers to three questions. 

  • Eric Mugendi, the East Africa program manager at technology and journalism non-profit organisation Meedan, asked how fact-checkers should work with expert sources who were reluctant to be named.

Experts can be apprehensive of going on the record, especially if they are refuting widely held beliefs. One way to deal with this is to develop relationships with sources. Explain your work and why it is important. 

In some cases, an expert may be willing to be quoted if they can review their contribution in context. This may reassure them that they have been accurately quoted. 

If experts are still hesitant, a trusted public health authority is a good second choice. These may include the World Health Organization, local nonprofits and community health organisations.

  • Bettie Johnson-Mbayo, co-founder of the Liberian fact-checking and journalism organisation the Stage Media, asked how fact-checkers could tackle false information when official sources were silent about it. This was Stage Media’s first Africa Facts meeting. 

You can’t predict what misinformation will become widespread or what it will look like. And it can be frustrating when official sources, like health departments, won't answer questions or counter falsehoods. 

In a case like this, focus your pre-bunking on things you know will always be true. For instance, your audience will benefit from learning about how a virus spreads, how it progresses, what its symptoms are and what proven treatments exist.

This will give them a basic level of knowledge that they can use when they encounter future misinformation.

  • Trokon Wreupe, co-founder of the Stage Media, asked if it was “advisable to speak with two or more experts on the same issue”.

It is but sometimes this slows down the fact-checking process. For shorter fact-checks you might want to quote previously-published material. But for your most important fact-checks, try to get in touch with as many experts as you can.

This serves two purposes:

  1. You reinforce information and you can be more confident in your findings.

  2. If your experts are from different organisations or areas of expertise, you are more likely to have found someone that your audience trusts. Some people might not trust a minister of health, but may trust a local doctor.

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