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Fact checking Africa in the post-truth age

Morris Kiruga
By Morris Kiruga
East Africa Editor of The Africa Report

Posted on Tuesday, 16 April 2019 12:23

Protestors outside Kenya's parliament, a common target of misguided assertions (AP Photo/Sayyid Azim)

Though politicians have always lied, never before has fact-checking them been so important.

But politicians are not the only who need active, public post hoc fact checking; public figures, individuals and organisations alike, are bound to make mistakes, make up facts and figures, and at times outrightly lie.

“We try not to call them ‘lies’,” Africa Check’s Kenya Editor, Alphonce Shiundu, tells The Africa Report, “because that connotes a deliberate intention to give false information and that is something we cannot prove.”

  • Africa Check was founded as a non-profit fact checking organisation in 2012, and now works round the clock to identify and verify claims made by public figures — the first organisation of its kind on the continent.
  • In 2015, Africa Check opened its office at the EJICOM journalism school in Dakar, Senegal, to run a French-language site.
  • It opened its Lagos and Nairobi offices the next year, and has since worked extensively with media organisations and individual organisations to improve fact-checking skills.
  • While the main team is based at the Journalism department of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, each country team has an editor, a deputy editor, and a researcher.

Shiundu says, there are clear “…patterns where politicians and public figures make claims based on what they THINK is happening, based on some popular/populist narrative, without actually sitting down to check that their perceptions of reality are based on fact.”

  • A good example is a claim by UNICEF that 65% of women in Kibera had exchanged sex for sanitary pads.
  • “It was a shocking stat, and my colleague Lee [Mwiti, current acting chief editor], sought to find the studies that led to the finding. It was such a shame to realise that they had pulled the stat from thin air,” Shiundu says.

The proof was not just embarrassing for UNICEF, but it also helped the area legislator and his constituents prove what they had been saying all along: there was no basis for some of the outrageous claims made about life in Nairobi’s most famous slum.

  • Another good example was a claim by senior Kenyan lawyer Abdullahi Ahmednasir about the number of employees in Parliament versus in the Judiciary. When Shiundu checked the claim, he found that it was wrong. “It is easy to think that there are fewer employees at Parliament (serving 418 lawmakers including speakers), only to find out that there were more employees in Parliament (9,940) than the employees in the Judiciary (5,598 employees—and is operating at 60% its staff establishment…it is short by about 4,000 staff, and that is not even news!)”
  • And another example: “ …we checked the [Kenyan] president’s statement that counties had spent 87.3% of their entire budgets on recurrent expenditure. That’s a popular narrative but when you actually check the figures, you realise that there’s a fiscal prudence in the counties”.

In its reports, Africa Check ranks the claims on a rating spectrum that ranges from correct to incorrect/misleading/exaggerated. Shiundu and the Kenyan office have, for example, been fact checking the State of the Nation Address for three years. “We are happy to see that the portion of claims that are on the awful end of our rating spectrum –incorrect/misleading/exaggerated claims– have significantly reduced”.

Keeping politicians on their toes is just one aspect of the organisation’s work. It also runs a Promise Tracker, a nifty tool to track of election promises made by ruling parties. The tool checks whether the promises have been kept, broken, or are in progress. “We hope this tool allows the people, the citizens, to hold their leaders to account and to inform their decision-making when it comes to making electoral choices,” Shiundu tells The Africa Report.

One of the problems with verifying claims is that some things that may appear straightforward have multiple nuances, depending on the source of the data.

  • For example, when the Kenyan office of Africa Check was working on factsheets on unemployment and specifically youth unemployment, the most formidable challenges were understanding how the government defines a job, and how to verify the informal jobs available in the country.

Who owns their errors?

Shiundu says that the Kenyan office is yet to get an on-the-record acknowledgment. Instead, the organization gets feedback from public figures or their aides expressing gratitude for making the data readily available. “Sometimes, they ask us for specific data for their speeches or other work, and we point them to our InfoFinder,” Shiundu adds.

There have, however been some public acknowledgements.

  • In September 2018, for example, Kate Wilkinson, based in the Johannesburg office, found an error in how South African police calculated crime rates that significantly underreported the year-on-year change between 2016/17 and 2017/18. The police service issued a revision of the crime rates two days later.
  • The month earlier, a researcher at the same office fact-checked a claim by Al Jazeera’s Inside Story that “The UN estimates a 117% rise in killing of women in South Africa since 2015.” The source of the claim, Statistics South Africa, later withdrew the claim.
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