CAPE TOWN — They came from Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal, among other countries. They were fact-checkers and technologists and nonprofit employees.
And all of them are working to expand fact-checking on the second largest continent on Earth.
At the second Africa Facts meeting on Tuesday, organized by Africa Check, around 30 people from seven countries across the continent gathered to share best practices and common obstacles for fact-checking. And at the sixth annual Global Fact-Checking Summit on Wednesday, they heard from other fact-checkers and tech companies about the current state and future of their growing industry.
At Africa Facts, the meeting was close to standing room only. At Global Fact, 60 participants hailed from the continent. That’s a far cry from where African fact-checkers were just one year ago.
According to the Duke Reporters’ Lab’s latest census, there are currently nine fact-checking branches operating in five countries across the continent. Africa Check, the oldest and most prolific of the bunch (having been launched in 2012), constitutes four of those, with about 30 employees in Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. (Disclosure: The Reporters’ Lab helps pay for Global Fact.)
At the first Africa Facts meeting in Johannesburg in fall 2017, there were only two operating fact-checkers in attendance, according to Peter Cunliffe-Jones, former director of Africa Check (and current IFCN senior adviser). Since then, the industry has grown rapidly — the Reporters’ Lab counted just four fact-checking organizations on the entire continent in early 2018.
“All across the continent, it’s started and it’s growing,” Cunliffe-Jones said in a phone interview before Global Fact. “What we’re trying to do is work with this growing group of fact-checkers to train them as they’re starting out their organizations to try to develop their skills.”
Among the fact-checking projects that have launched in Africa over the past year and a half include CongoCheck, Dubawa, MozCheck and ZimFact. In Nigeria, First Draft united 16 news organizations to fact-check elections in November. Africa Check has continued to grow hand over foot, with a staff of about 30 and a seven-figure operating budget. And Facebook is interested in expanding its fact-checking partnership on the continent.
The future is bright — but the challenge is great.
In several countries, health misinformation is rampant on platforms like WhatsApp — with potentially dire consequences for those who believe it. Hoaxes regularly stir social and religious tensions in countries like Nigeria. And during a Global Fact session on Thursday, four African fact-checkers said that some of their biggest obstacles manifest during elections.
“Fact-checking in Africa, I think, is hard during the best of times — but it’s even harder during elections,” said Cris Chinaka, founder of ZimFact, during the panel.
A lack of access to reliable data is one of the reasons why.
Chinaka said that, while governments usually have open records laws on the books, it often takes too long to receive such data — especially during elections. Cunliffe-Jones reiterated that point in his final column for Africa Check, where he stepped down as director in May, and during his keynote remarks at Global Fact on Wednesday.
“We need to make it easier to find reliable information,” he said. “Misinformation flourishes when reliable information is scarce or mistrusted — often the case and not just in Africa, Asia or Latin America, but also in Europe and North America, too.”
Another big obstacle is funding. Several African fact-checkers Poynter has spoken to have asked how they can raise money when the lion’s share of foundation money seems to be concentrated in the United States and Europe. Facebook pays its fact-checking partners, four of which are based in African countries, but not enough to sustain an entire team.
Finally, there’s the fact that a lot of African countries have governments with poor press freedom records. After launching in December 2017, Glecio Massango, founder of MozCheck, told Poynter that there was a lot of concern that the government in Mozambique, which requires media outlets to register and whose press Freedom House has rated as “partly free,” would intervene.
“Some people were skeptical, saying this is dangerous,” he said at the time. “We know this is Africa. We know how politicians are.”
That was among the main challenges for ZimFact, too, which launched amid political turmoil in late 2017. Zimbabwe has no press freedom, according to Freedom House, and Chinaka was concerned that the government would shut them down.
Fact-checkers can’t change those kinds of challenging political contexts. But they can potentially solve funding and data concerns by expanding their sources and distribution methods, Cunliffe-Jones said.
“If you’ve got a convincing argument for how you reach scale, I think the funding becomes a lot easier,” he said.
And across Africa, scaling fact-checkers’ work means partnering with people who aren’t fact-checkers.
Eric Mugendi, managing editor of PesaCheck in Kenya, said during the Global Fact panel that the organization has worked with an election monitoring group in the past to verify claims about the vote that it couldn’t investigate on its own. That helped the organization scale its sources to the volume of false claims online.
Those kinds of inter-organizational partnerships are key.
Africa Check is collaborating with the Open Data Institute to make data more accessible over the next three years. And during his keynote, Cunliffe-Jones announced that the fact-checking organization is also exploring partnerships with Nigerian public health officials that could distribute its fact checks to the patients that need them most.
“Africa Check and half a dozen media houses will surface examples of health misinformation,” he told Poynter before Global Fact. “Once a quarter we’ll bring together online, because it’s cheap, a dozen or more representatives or stakeholders in the health space.”
An ideal scenario for the project, which Cunliffe-Jones expects to launch this fall, would be if public health officials in Nigeria printed fact checks of popular health hoaxes and displayed them in doctor’s offices. That way, Africa Check and others can get their work into the languages and communities that it doesn’t currently serve.
“A lot of people are not online, and it’s for economic reasons or political reasons or another reason. And if they are, English isn’t their language,” he said. “We need to be communicating with them in their language.”
The kinds of partnerships Africa Check is developing are ambitious. But for new or prospective fact-checkers in African countries, thinking about them early on could mean the difference between success and failure.
Cunliffe-Jones had three questions he’d ask budding fact-checkers before they launch.
“Why are you doing this? And how are you funded? And what do you see the biggest challenge is?”Disclosure: Being a signatory of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network code of principles is a necessary condition for joining Facebook’s fact-checking project.