Nearly two decades ago, an unfounded rumour about the dangers of the polio vaccination spread across northern Nigeria and led to the authorities boycotting the vaccine. This resulted in thousands of polio deaths and placed Nigeria on the World Health Organisation’s list of polio-endemic countries, before the UN declared it “polio-free” last year. Misinformation was at the root of this crisis, and it is a factor in countless other health crises today – most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid this worsening environment of misinformation, fear and uncertainty, a global movement of data-driven and audience engagement practices have given rise to a new democratic institution: the independent political fact checker. According to research from the Duke Reporters’ Lab in April 2020, there were 237 fact-checking outlets in 78 countries. But while plenty of research has been done on the role of fact-checking sites in European and American media, there is limited scholarship that considers their manifestation among non-traditional journalistic actors in Africa, and their relationship with local audiences. Given the emergent trend of independent fact checking across the continent, it is worthwhile to consider its rootedness in the first non-partisan fact-checking organisation: Africa Check.
The role of the ‘active audience’
Established in 2012 at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, Africa Check has become the most prolific member in a growing industry of African fact checking organizations that are working to combat the rise and spread of fake news and the coordinated campaigns of misinformation in the media. In realising the need to integrate data-driven practices with mainstream news reporting, Africa Check investigates claims made by public officials or news organisations that are submitted through their website or via social media, selected internally by staff members, or commissioned externally. The claims are reviewed by a team that includes journalists, researchers, fellows and editors, and are rated on a seven-point scale that ranges from Incorrect to Correct, using publicly available evidence and information. The results are published on their website and on other news outlets in print, online and on television and radio.
To better understand Africa Check’s relationship with its audience, it is useful to apply Stuart Hall’s theory of encoding and decoding and the role of the ‘active audience’ in accepting, negotiating or opposing information. Hall asserts that a negotiating or oppositional audience is most likely to question political or statistical claims in the news that are delivered through hegemonic power structures. Therefore, Africa Check operates under the assumption that any submitted claims will come from an audience that is politically engaged, predominantly English or French-speakers (the two available languages on the website), technologically literate and digitally connected. But these criteria narrow the scope of audience reach, because they fail to take into consideration the diversity of languages, digital connectivity, and news consumption habits of African audiences in different contexts across the continent, as well as the likelihood of attracting and sustaining audience attention. But public figures and institutions play a pivotal role in the dissemination of information, and Africa Check has established various partnerships to overcome some of the challenges in reaching audiences, holding their attention, and establishing credibility.
Establishing credibility and trust
In order to support the development of better communication strategies and disseminate verified information, Africa Check’s most noteworthy institutional alliance is with Facebook’s Third-Party Fact-Checking Partnership. Under this partnership, any content that is rated “false” will be downgraded on the platform so that fewer people see the post and it becomes less likely to be shared. In 2019, Facebook expanded its fact-checking program with Africa Check to include language support for major local languages in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Senegal. This was an important step towards inclusiveness of Africa’s diverse languages and regional contexts, but given the scope of these diversities across the continent, much more work needs to be done to reach audiences in their own unique languages and contexts.
Moreover, as the public debate becomes increasingly decentralised, audiences themselves are setting the news agenda through engagement with and interpretation of media in mostly private spheres, such as social media platforms. According to the 2019 Reuters Digital News Report, WhatsApp has become the primary source of news and information for many African audiences. As such, the spread of fake news is not necessarily top-down but rather horizontal, and exemplifies the influence of the audience in constructing a narrative in the peripheries of a highly-centralized media environment. This is where media literacy can be a key intervention to improve audiences’ ability to think critically about the information they encounter, and become not just consumers but content-makers. Unfortunately, the literature on African audiences in the context of receiving and interpreting (mis)information is sorely lacking in comparison to that of European audiences. This is important for the wider project of decolonising media and audience studies, and as scholar Karin Barber has pointed out: “what has not yet been sufficiently explored is the possibility that specific African audiences have distinctive, conventional modes and styles of making meaning [and] we need to ask how audiences do their work of interpretation”.
Thus, despite encountering many challenges in its approach to independent fact-checking, Africa Check’s engagement with various media actors on the continent and globally, as well as its transparency in publishing several assessment reports on its website demonstrate a willingness to adjust their method and delivery of fact-checking services. But time is of the essence. Nearly two decades after the anti-polio vaccination rumour needlessly cost so many lives in Nigeria, misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has cost countless more. Independent fact-checkers fill an important void in today’s digital media landscape, but there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to countering misinformation, disseminating verified claims, and educating audiences about media literacy and critical thinking. Additional research that explores the role of the audience in the information consumption process and their subsequent response to this information in localised contexts will be crucial in developing more effective fact-checking strategies in response to future crises.
Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes