Ferret Fact Service spoke to Africa Check editor Anim van Wyk about the challenges and successes of fact checking claims made throughout Africa.
Set up in 2012, Africa Check is an independent fact-checking organisation that aims to improve the quality of public information across the continent. It’s based in Johannesburg, with teams in Nairobi, Lagos, Dakar and London too.
For van Wyk, the most important question to ask when deciding what to fact check is “so what?”
“What would be the impact if we don’t fact check this issue?” she says. “Is it just a matter of curiosity, or could it make a difference to policy or people’s lives and decisions? That has to weigh most heavily when we decide what to fact check.”
In some cases, making sure accurate information is available to the public can be vitally important.
“Sometimes it literally has life and death or disability impacts,” van Wyk notes. “Our founding story is that our executive editor used to work in Nigeria, and he saw a polio campaign fail because the media just repeated what community leaders said - that the campaign caused infertility, and that it was a ploy by Western governments to keep Nigeria’s population under control.
“That caused polio to flare up in Nigeria again, and it’s only now that the country may be taken off the list of polio-endemic countries. So, misinformation can have serious consequences.”
For Africa Check, it can be difficult to get hold of accurate, up-to-date information. Van Wyk explains that she and her team can struggle to get recent government statistical data, and complete historical information is sometimes in short supply.
“For example, the latest data on unemployment in Kenya was from 2009,” she says. “Though people are making claims ahead of the election in Kenya [on 8 August 2017], it’s very difficult to judge the situation because the data is so old. Those kind of things slow us down a lot because we have to harass people for information.”
But most are keen to help the fact checkers do their job, and van Wyk believes that those with expertise are interested in getting information out there.
“In general, experts are quite forthcoming,” she adds. “They want to make sure that people understand the issues. They also see the value of our kind of journalism, where we explain issues, and it’s not just about sound bites or getting the story out quickly. We unpack it and look at it from all angles.”