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

JOHANNESBURG — Journalists from 12 different countries and four continents gathered around a table at the University of the Witwatersrand to talk about fact-checking. At the head was Peter Cunliffe-Jones.

As executive director of Africa Check, the continent’s best-known fact-checking organization, Cunliffe-Jones is unassuming. While meeting with fact-checkers in Johannesburg earlier this month, he spoke softly, listened intently and carried himself in a way one might expect of a college professor. Instead of running the show, he appeared more like a fly on the wall.

But under Cunliffe-Jones’ leadership, Africa Check has grown to become a global leader for the fact-checking community — and it’s starting to see results.

The first Africa Facts conference constituted the latest milestone for Africa Check, whose website launched in October 2012 to improve newsgathering across the continent. In December, the organization’s staff will grow to 22 people (five of which are part-time employees) with new staffing additions in Nigeria and Kenya. It now has 140,000 monthly unique visitors and a $1.3 million operating budget, which will grow over the next two years, Cunliffe-Jones told Poynter.

Africa Check has also had success in training other journalists. The organization has trained more than 1,200 journalists since 2015, and they’ve been giving out fact-checking awards over the past four years to recognize work done across the continent. This year, they had entries from 159 journalists in 25 countries.

Cunliffe-Jones has worked in some of those countries, as well as several others around the world, over the past few decades. Prior to starting Africa Check, he was a journalist working everywhere from Bosnia and Croatia to Lagos and Hong Kong. Aside from the numbers, he said one of Africa Check’s biggest accomplishments has been expanding fact-checking into countries where it barely registered before.

“One of the things we’ve taken away is that, in the countries we’ve started (fact-checking), people are astonished at what we’re doing. Politicians and all sorts of power-holders do not expect to have their sources questioned,” he said. “So people have for years gotten away with claims when they know that nobody is going to check them.”

Poynter sat down with Cunliffe-Jones to learn more about what Africa Check has learned after five years, what it’s hoping to do next and what that means for fact-checking on the continent. This Q-and-A has been shortened for clarity.

It’s been a little more than five years since Africa Check launched its website. What have you learned in that time, especially with regard to expanding to different countries in Africa?

The first thing is that it’s possible to fact-check in Africa. A lot of people were skeptical when we launched, saying "The data isn’t available," "You won’t be able to find the facts," "Politicians won’t talk to you — this isn’t America." But there are credible sources of information and credible people to talk about them all across the continent, so it is possible.

It is also harder than it is in Western countries, because while freedom of information is now legislated in the majority of countries, it isn’t the reality. So data that has been collected is not made available. There’s also then a lot of places that don’t collect them … or if it is available, it’s of poor quality.

The other important thing to me is the tremendous importance of doing the work, which I think is the main takeaway. There are claims made for cures of terrible diseases — HIV, Ebola. People put these claims out on social media, and if these claims are believed, people die. There are claims made that whip up xenophobic violence, and that happens in South Africa, in Kenya and Nigeria. It’s not a sort of dry, academic interest in the concept of the truth — it’s actually that misleading claims made about the most serious topics, in a continent where life can be fragile, is incredibly dangerous.

The fourth takeaway would just be the overwhelmingly positive response. We expected to get all sorts of criticisms, which of course, people whom we fact-check and say are incorrect don’t pretend to love it, and they’ll try to make arguments about bias this way and that way … But the overwhelming response is positive in that somebody is actually doing it, because it wasn’t being done before.

You’ve created some innovative workarounds when it comes to data and accessibility, such as using WhatsApp to surface hoaxes. What has that process been like and what are some untapped opportunities?

I think we recognized early on the importance of having other media support our work, so the strategy was to recenter our work for the media houses. And it is very widely picked up — it’s republished in full in mainstream news websites. We think we’re the first fact-checking program on radio, and it’s because we reach a different demographic. We’re doing a pilot with the BBC Africa, which has a daily audience of 14 million — we’re doing a regular fact-checking program. So we’re reaching out to TV and radio audiences who don’t go online.

We have sought to gather information through text, SMS, WhatsApp — which people use a lot more easily than they do accessing the website. We ask people to send in claims, but the cost of going online, getting onto the website and doing that is higher; it’s low, but it’s higher than sending a WhatsApp message. I think it’s about making it as easy as possible for people to get in touch and to feel as much as possible that we’re trying to reach out to them.

The last part is about our partnerships. We’ve now done in-person training with more than 1,200 journalists, we’re mentoring media houses. We’ve expanded to four countries — that means there is a huge part of the continent that isn’t really seeing any questioning of claims that are being made … If you can help organizations make it more regular and expand into the space, you can actually build it across the continent.

Is it almost like when there are gaps in official data, or even when people just decide to not look into it, just starting to fact-check in certain countries raises the political bar a little bit?

The first thing we were trying to do was make everybody involved in public debate understand that you have to have a basis for what you said, and that journalists have a duty to question false claims that they’re making … Adding that context, that claims must be based on sound evidence, in every part of the public debate chain is fundamentally our biggest goal.

How do you build an audience across such a diverse continent, and how do you make sure you’re covering the right things?

First of all, we recognize that we can’t possibly cover every claim. That’s one reason we created the (fact-checking) awards, as well as (Africa Facts) ... So in order to enter the awards, you have to go through an explanation of what fact-checking is. We’ve had entries from lots of places, but serious entries from 25 countries. 

We’re also trying to work with other fact-checkers, as well as the (International Fact-Checking Network), so that they have standards that are not dictated to them, but they are good standards of nonpartisan fact-checking, of reliance on sources, of transparency about your funding.

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