Where misinformation kills, fact-checkers hope to save lives

July 8, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

In March of this year, a rumor began to spread in Bukavu, a city in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, claiming that the president’s wife had forbidden all Congolese women from wearing pants or mini-skirts.

What followed is a horrific example of how misinformation has the capacity to go from an online hoax to a tangible threat to life.

“Women were beaten all day long by motorists and others (for wearing pants or skirts),” Rodriguez Katsuva, a fact-checker for Congo Check in the DRC, told the IFCN. “One woman was beaten, they took her clothes off, and then they posted naked pictures of her on social media. She was humiliated, this woman.”

“That is how harmful fake news and misinformation can be in my country… (It) can really literally kill people.”

Katsuva explained that since the Internet is too expensive for most people in the country to afford, the average Congolese only has access to Facebook and WhatsApp, which are offered for free by many cellular networks. “The experiences of many Congolese starts and ends on Facebook. They’ve never been on Google; other sites are very expensive to go on.”

As a result, fake news emerges frequently on the two platforms, and it doesn’t stop there.

Katsuva explained that in villages where only a handful of people have access to the Internet, misinformation can spread rapidly to offline audiences by word of mouth. “The one with the phone is the one with the right information,” he said. “If there’s fake news, he gives fake news to 10 people. Those 10 people go to the city and talk to others. In the evening, they talk with their parents. When their parents go to work in the fields, they talk to other neighbors.”

“Fake news or any information that’s taken from the Internet is spread by mouth, and it becomes worse, shared more widely than it was online.”

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, severe violence between armed groups and a recent ebola outbreak have displaced 4.49 million Congolese. These conflicts seem to be worsening; in May, The Guardian reported that the country’s ebola epidemic is spreading at its fastest rate since the outbreak began in late 2018, and just last month, the UN Security Council passed new sanctions prohibiting weapons sales to rebel groups and placing travel bans on designated officials.

Amid this tumultuous and disease-stricken environment, misinformation poses a serious threat to public safety, which Katsuva and his colleagues at Congo Check are trying to combat. The fact-checking platform was founded in 2018 by Sammy Mupfuni, who began with a small team of journalists and a software engineer. The project has since grown to 16 members.

“We thought about fact-checking because false information was already circulating a lot on social networks and information websites, and we wanted to fight this,” Mupfuni told the IFCN in an email.

According to Mupfuni, traditional journalists were initially skeptical of the methodology. “Over time they understood the importance of fact-checking,” he wrote, especially when some of them unknowingly published fake news themselves. “We are gradually becoming the reference of truth, where Internet users come to verify information.”

Congo Check is still being personally financed by Mupfuni and the other journalists who belong to the team. This has proven to be a serious limitation. “The lack of resources often does not allow us to investigate very important subjects, because it is costly,” Mupfuni said.

In addition to this, Congo Check fact-checkers are limited in their ability to access information from the government. In 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was the sub-Saharan African country where Reporters Without Borders registered the most press freedom violations. Reporters Without Borders’ website explains that “violence, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, media closures and the ransacking of media outlets constitute a very hostile environment for journalists” in the DRC.

At the end of last year during the country’s presidential elections, former President Joseph Kabila ordered an Internet shut down that lasted 20 days despite urging from the United Nations to switch it back on.

Despite these setbacks, Mupfuni, Katsuva and the rest of the Congo Check team are desperate to fight against as much misinformation as they can manage.

“We cannot choose (certain fact-checks over others),” Katsuva said. “If it’s fake news about the DRC, whatever area, whatever topic, we have to fact-check it to make sure we save lives.”

Two months ago, Congo Check launched #FactCheckEbola, a project aimed specifically towards fake news regarding the epidemic. “These days, there is so much fake news on Ebola,” Katsuva added. “There are claims that Ebola is not an illness, (just a hoax) made by white people trying to kill black people and take their organs.”

“Some people are saying that eating onions can heal you from the disease … Onion is not a medicine for Ebola.”