Get your Africa facts right: websites seek to stem flow of misinformation

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A lack of transparency, accountability and media resources can make sorting truth from fiction especially difficult across the continent. Now, fact-checkers are seeking to change that.

What do these statements about Africa have in common? A white farmer is killed every five days in South Africa. Earlier this year Nigerian Islamists Boko Haram burnt 375 Christians alive. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the rape capital of the world. Johannesburg is the world’s biggest man-made forest. Answer: despite being widely accepted, none of them are true.

In an age when information cascades down Twitter feeds by the millisecond, it is increasingly difficult to sieve for facts, especially when it comes to much of Africa. But a trickle of newcomer websites such as BudgIT and Africa Check, are hoping to usher in the kind of non-partisan data and fact-checking services made popular by the likes of PolitiFact and others in the west.

Their daunting tasks range from tackling the sort of popular myths which once cast Africa as a land of giant birds and cannibals, to taking on officials in countries where data is often sketchy and accountability even more so.

By poking holes in accepted narratives, the websites’ creators hope to “kick-start people’s sceptical reflex,” said Peter Cunliffe-Jones, an Africa Check founder and journalist who formerly worked in Nigeria, a country that has a particularly fearsome reputation when it comes to sorting fact from fiction.

This week, the Nigerian military claimed - for a second time - that dozens of schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamists Boko Haram had been freed amid an “ongoing” rescue operation. None had been, and the statement was later retracted.

“It can be difficult to get hold of reliable information anywhere,” said Cunliffe-Jones. “But [in Nigeria] there hasn’t always been a culture of holding people to account for what they say.”
A demonstration in Abuja, Nigeria, this month called for the government to do more to rescue the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in April. A demonstration in Abuja, Nigeria, this month called for the government to do more to rescue the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in April. Photograph: Olamikan Gbemiga/AP

In February 2000, during riots in the northern city of Kaduna, Cunliffe-Jones stood on a hotel roof and watched as police oversaw the loading of at least eight large trucks with the bodies of those killed in the clashes. By his most conservative estimate, at least 400 corpses were trucked away. The police later insisted only 37 died.

“When we said to them, we know 37 is not even vaguely correct, they told us, look, we are trying to keep the peace,” Cunliffe-Jones said. “But the result is nobody trusts the authorities.”

The fledgling website headquartered in the journalism department of Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University, hopes to foster a culture where even simple statements can be verified before they are picked up by local newspapers, and sometimes foreign ones.

When people can’t hold others to account, when policies are built on the basis of misinformation, societies can’t function

Misinformation can have severe practical consequences. A 2003 Unicef-led drive to wipe out polio in northern Nigeria – one of only three countries where the illness is still endemic – was derailed when prominent politicians insisted the vaccination was an attempt by western nations to spread HIV and sterilise Muslims. Thanks largely to that falsehood, the global effort to eradicate polio was set back more than a decade and counting.

“People need the best available information to make the best decisions. When people can’t hold others to account, when policies are built on the basis of misinformation, societies can’t function,” Cunliffe-Jones said.

That has recently been illustrated again in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, where many people – initially convinced the Ebola outbreak was a hoax created by their governments to plunder public coffers – ignored public health warnings.

Some international coverage of the outbreak was accused of misinforming western readers. In August, US publication Newsweek magazine ran a front cover with a chimp and the headline beneath warning: “A Back Door For Ebola: Smuggled Bushmeat Could Spark a US epidemic.”

“They didn’t have any evidence for the claims they were making. There’s zero evidence that bushmeat smuggling could bring Ebola to the US,” said academic Laura Seay who co-authored a scathing takedown of the article. “It was just click-baiting and fear-baiting, and like a lot of the coverage on Ebola, overtly racist.”

Newsweek’s editor dismissed Seay’s claims with a tweet saying: “Troll better you should be ashamed”.

Inaccurate media reports are hardly limited to Africa, but there’s a greater chance of international newspapers getting things wrong – and not admitting so – when it comes to the continent, Seay said.

“When most western outlets have just two or three people covering a continent of 11 million square miles, it very easy to make mistakes, even unintentionally. It’s a recipe for disaster in terms of quality of coverage.”

Around half of Africa Check’s investigations are triggered by readers wanting to know anything from the veracity of claims made by pop stars to supposed disease-busting local herbs. Operating out of Lagos and Johannesburg, the not-for-profit organisation funded by grants and individual donations has a team of five full-timers working alongside volunteers and freelancers, and hopes to expand to Kenya and Senegal next.

Anton Harber, a highly-regarded South African former investigative journalist and co-founder of the project, explained its ultimate aim. “I imagine a situation in which every public figure and journalist feels nervous about what they say or write because Africa Check might just catch them out.”

For many, the truths uncovered in this story will feel all too familiar. We want to give you the chance to nominate other stories to be checked out. Perhaps you felt the continent was misrepresented in international media? Did a report include a statement about a country you know not to be true? Or is there a commonly perceived wisdom you’ve always questioned? Add your suggestions, with links, in the comments below or and we’ll turn the best one over to Africa Check to investigate. Alternatively you can tweet them @guardianafrica.

Source: The Guardian African Network 27 September 2014