June 17, 2019

Picture yourself the mayor of a city where 250 fact-checker will meet for three days. Would you be a little scared of this huge squad used to telling the truth about public transportation, the health system and education rates? Dan Plato, who was elected Cape Town’s Mayor in November 2018 by the Democratic Alliance, said he is definitely not.

In an email interview with the International Fact-Checking Network, Plato welcomed Global Fact 6 participants who will be in town June 18-21, and shared some of his own thoughts about misinformation. Plato expressed worry about Twitter and wants to know if “fake news will become more or less prevalent in the future.”

When asked about threats made against fact-checkers by politicians worldwide, Plato defended the importance of free and independent media and clearly demanded protection for those who are exposing lies. He also said he believes that the public has to do its part in the misinformation battle and should question the information they receive more often.

Known for having played a role in mobilizing Cape Town residents against the Apartheid government when he was younger and for preparing the city for the FIFA World Cup in 2010, Plato is in his second term in office. He was also mayor from May 2009 to June 2011. 

Cape Town was chosen to host Global Fact 6, the biggest and most diverse fact-checking summit in history. It is the first time such a big group of fact-checkers (more than 200) gets together in Africa. Why is it important?

I am very pleased that this event is being held in Cape Town. Just last year Cape Town was awarded the title of “World’s Leading Festival and Events Destination” at the 2018 World Travel Awards. We have successfully hosted a range of different conferences, international sporting events and business conferences, music festivals and many more, so I am glad that we can also be the host city for a conference covering a topic so critical to our media and daily lives. In an age where misinformation can spread like wildfire, it is of the utmost importance that our residents know where they can find reliable and trustworthy information so that they can stay informed.

Is misinformation a problem in South Africa and in Cape Town, too? How do you see it today?

Thankfully, we have a mostly independent media in South Africa and some great investigative journalists who do their best to hold politicians and those in power to account. Unfortunately, there are also times when the media is misled, and they do not do sufficient fact-checking, which ends up in serious accusations being made that turn out to be untrue. When this happens major damage can be done to an individual or an institution’s reputation. It is also disappointing that some of our media houses have chosen to withdraw from independent oversight bodies, such as the Press Council, who ensure that those who believe they have been wronged have a platform to raise their concerns and to get an apology and a correction where these are necessary.

In your point of view, what are the best ways to fight false news and misinformation?

I believe we should never tolerate attempts to promote fake news and should always call this out when we see it. The truth will always trump lies, so we will lever tolerate lies being told about us or the work that we do. Where we have fallen short this, of course, must be reported on, but when matters get distorted it is the public who suffer as they are the ones who are left with the misinformation. The public should always question the information they receive — where is it coming from, who is saying it, who controls the publication, what is the purpose of trying to communicate what is being communicated – these are the questions that we should always ask. Interrogate the news, don’t just accept it. We also have a local fact-checking organization, Africa Check, which regularly interrogates claims made by different politicians and government departments and then report on the accuracy of these claims. I think this is a great service and keeps everyone on their toes.

If you could ask international fact-checkers three things, what would they be?

Where do you go for truly unbiased news? What are your views on Twitter? Do you think “fake news” will become more or less prevalent in the future?

Have you had a claim fact-checked? How was it rated? How did it feel? If not, any suggestions for politicians who are commonly fact-checked?

A national politician several years ago chose to take issue with a concern I was raising about the shortcomings of South Africa’s witness protection program. His claims were thankfully fact-checked and it was found that he had cherry-picked data to misrepresent his argument.

Some politicians, unfortunately, have no shame, and because they cannot argue the merits of a case, they make up false claims. Even sadder is that this false narrative is at times picked up by our media, can do huge damage to our social fabric, and by the time it has been rebutted and corrected the damage is done. Our media need to interrogate the claims being made more carefully instead of just holding up a microphone to anyone who makes the most outlandish statements.

Fact-checkers are commonly threatened for what they publish. In many countries, politics is like soccer and religion — can really make people mad. What is your opinion on this?

Thankfully in South Africa, we have a free media and a justice system that everyone knows will ensure justice is served. So while some politicians from political parties who make more noise and deliver little will choose to threaten journalists on the rare occasion (this is not a common occurrence, as there are consequences for those actions). We need a free and independent media and I am glad that our journalists are safer in South Africa than in some of the other oppressive environments in which other journalists have to work. The truth must always come out and we must protect those who are telling the truth and exposing lies.

For three days, Cape Town will have more than 200 journalists who are used to hearing claims and check if they are true or not. Are you ready for that team?

I welcome this level of attention. We are very proud of our city and what we are able to deliver to our residents. There is still lots of work to be done, but we ensure that we have clean governance, that we are accountable, and that we spend our budget as best we can to deliver to as many people as possible.

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Cristina Tardáguila is the former International Fact-Checking Network’s Associate Director. She was born in May 1980, in Brazil, and has lived in Rio de Janeiro…
Cristina Tardáguila

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