March 15, 2019

The promotion to director wasn’t a big shock for Noko Makgato of Africa Check.

“It’s a strange situation where you have been at the front of a lot of stuff and you’re just trying to reason in terms of title and a few other new responsibilities,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been at it for some time.”

That’s saying something considering Africa Check, the first fact-checking project on the African continent, has only been around for seven years.

Makgato is the second director to lead the operation, following founder Peter Cunliffe-Jones, a veteran journalist who previously reported from several African countries for the Agence France-Presse. He stepped down as director and announced a new board of directors for the nonprofit last week.

“This has always been a team project, powered by the hard work & brilliance of our (Johannesburg), Dakar, Lagos and Nairobi teams,” Cunliffe-Jones tweeted in a thread published March 6. “It’s great to be able to step down, knowing there is much more to do, but confident we are making progress and have a great team that will go far.”

The growth has been rapid.

In five years, Africa Check has become a leader in global fact-checking

Since launching in 2012 with the blessing of the AFP and Wits University in Johannesburg, Africa Check has grown to a staff of 29 in four countries. It has trained thousands of journalists on verification techniques. It gets hundreds of thousands of pageviews per month and has a seven-figure operating budget — a rarity among the world’s fact-checking projects.

This is the project that Makgato, who joined Africa Check in September 2016, inherits. Its mandate is huge. Formerly deputy director of the fact-checking outfit, he said that he plans to make Africa Check’s coverage more representative of the needs of individual countries on the continent.

“With each country, we need to learn what resonates and what has the biggest impact, and then adopt our strategies to the local conditions,” he said.

Poynter called Makgato to learn more about his recent promotion, what’s in store for Africa Check and what some of the biggest fact-checking challenges on the continent are. This Q-and-A has been shortened for clarity.

Talk a little bit about yourself. What’s your background and how did you get to Africa Check?

I’ve been a journalist since 1998, I think. I started off with a media company in South Africa called Times Media. It’s now called Tiso Blackstar.

So I’ve basically been with them most of my career, and then moved a little bit this way and that way, but ended up running a small digital agency in 2007. And I did that for a number of years until 2016, actually. And then I studied for a bit, I was doing my MBA, so I took a break from working.

While I was busy with my studies, I did a stint at Tiso Blackstar again for a little bit. And as I was doing that stint, the opportunity at Africa Check opened up, and then I went for it.

What led to the recent change in leadership? Africa Check has been around for seven years and this seemed kind of sudden. How long had you been thinking about doing it?

I don’t think it’s one of those single-event type changes. I think it’s been a long time coming; it’s been planned for some time.

The idea (Cunliffe-Jones has) always had is to start an organization that would eventually be handed over to an African, that would be run by Africans. It’s always, I think, strange if you follow the growth of Africa Check to be an organization operating on the continent and being led by Peter, who is not African.

But he’s got a deep love for the continent and its people. And having worked here for many years through AFP, that connection sort of happened for him and he always had the intention of handing over the organization to be run by Africans for Africans.

Even the board itself is now a lot more representative of the countries in which we operate. So we’ve got trustees that work in Kenya, Senegal, Nigeria and South Africa that are part of the eigh-member board. So it’s a good position for the organization going forward.

Peter obviously had a long legacy, having founded Africa Check seven years ago. What does it feel like to be taking his place?

That’s one thing I’m going to try and avoid to step in his shoes — because those are big shoes to fill. I mean, he’s done amazing good for Africa Check and the broader fact-checking community, as you know. And so he’s a legend of journalism and I’m not hoping to be the new Peter at all.

I think there’s a different role for me in taking Africa Check into a new phase of its growth. Really, we’re two different people, and we all, I think, bring something to the table. And mine will be to carry on his good work, but also to try and bring a sort of nuance that maybe we didn’t quite have. It’s just bringing in the local flavor more than anything. I don’t propose at all to any major changes to the organization, but the idea is to carry on the work that we do and basically accentuate the positive stuff that we’re doing.

There’s a lot of learning that we need to start doing as an organization, and as we change tactics and strategy, that’s the phase that we need to enter.

That’s interesting that you brought up adding more nuance to the project. But I’m curious what that looks like? The project is based out of South Africa but tries to connect the continent in this way that I find really interesting. How do you bring in those local aspects to the project in a way that makes sense?

Africa is a huge continent, right? So the idea is to try and learn as much as possible from our country officers in terms of the work that we’re doing there and the impact that we think the work is having on the local front.

In other words, the trick for us going forward is to not have one site with one approach, or one single way of doing things. It’s to try and experiment with different things that are influenced by how those countries perceive misinformation or handle misinformation, and acknowledging how different types of misinformation are experienced differently in different countries.

For instance, Nigeria is a big hotspot for health misinformation, right? So we’re sort of focusing our efforts on health misinformation at the moment.

Right. And I know there’s been a lot of expanding since the project was originally founded. Are there any new countries or regions that you want to take the project next?

So we find ourselves in a strange situation. One of the things that we always insist on is having maximum impact in the countries that we operate in because that’s how we feel that we’ll have the best results.

So in other words, we concentrate our efforts on a country and push the fight against misinformation in that one country instead of trying to do a little bit of Zim(babwe), do a little bit of Botswana. That’s never going to have the level of impact that we think we’re getting now with the concentrated effort that we’re giving. So we push hard in South Africa, we push hard in Kenya, we push hard in Nigeria and Senegal. And acknowledging the limited resources that we have, we think that’s the best use of resources.

So we don’t have any immediate plans to expand into other countries, but what we do have plans for is to expand our support for other organizations that are looking to either start fact-checking units within their current setups, whether it’s media houses or other NGOs.

I’m glad you brought up partnerships because I know you recently joined Facebook’s fact-checking partnership. I’m curious how you think that’s been going and how you foresee the partnership growing in the future — especially across different countries and cultures.

So Facebook is huge in most African countries, right? We are very happy to be part of this partnership with Facebook.

It’s early days for us; we’ve really only been at it full time since January of this year. We sort of started the project tentatively in late October, but we had a few hiccups along the way in terms of getting our own internal systems operating efficiently, getting the right resources in place.

The work is different in different countries … As you know, fact-checkers love the sort of complicated stuff, right? We’re seeing a lot of lightweight, hoaxy stuff coming out of Senegal and Nigeria. The elections in Nigeria helped improve the quality of the stuff that we were seeing in the queue (of potentially false claims on Facebook), and that was good because we could go after the meaty stuff. We’ve been struggling a little bit with the quality of the stuff that has been enqueued. But in South Africa, there’s a good range of things that we can sink our teeth into.

We are getting quite a bit of support from Facebook. The lines of communication are there, we’re able to engage them with issues around the quality of the items in the queue and various other glitches that seem to appear. So we’re told that, over time, as the system somehow learns or picks up through the algorithm — it’s machine learning, we’re told — it gets better.

From where I sit, I’d be worried more about closed messaging apps like WhatsApp in terms of challenges. But to you, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing fact-checkers like you and on the continent in general?

This is one of the things that I sort of realized early on in my early days at Africa Check: There’s quite a lot of offline information that we are missing as fact-checkers, particularly on the African continent.

And what I mean by offline, (is that) there are a lot of sort of printed materials that get shared around, such as bus and taxi stops where people congregate in the afternoons to travel to and from work. And in those environments, there is a lot of misinformation that is shared through those printed brochures — it could be about anything, any sort of misinformation. And we miss quite a bit of that; we’re not plugged into what’s being spread around at the community level.

So the assumption, as I think is probably the case in Europe, the U.S. and other parts of the world, is that people live the majority of their lives online … That’s not really the reality of the majority of Africans. It’s a challenge for us: How do we plug into the offline stuff that’s being shared around?

The other challenge in the online space is WhatsApp. I mean, WhatsApp is a huge platform in some of these countries that we operate in. It’s completely dark to us, as Africa Check, and probably dark to almost everyone. So we are talking to various people in the WhatsApp environment to work with us, to come up with some way we can monitor that information and, in some cases, intervene in it.

We do have sort of systems in place in which we ask our readers and followers to share the content they come across. And that’s happening, but I don’t think it’s happening at the scale we want it to — certainly not at the scale of the Facebook third-party fact-checking project. So similar interventions are needed for WhatsApp and Twitter.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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