The war against misinformation demands a group effort

  An interview with Retha Langa, Deputy Director of Africa Check.  

Retha Langa joined Africa Check as deputy director in August 2019. She has over a decade of experience across various sectors, including media, development and entrepreneurship. Retha is driven by a desire to do meaningful work that matters. She started her career as a journalist and later moved into the non-profit space, working in rural health. She holds a PhD in heritage from Wits University.

Retha, can you share with us the philosophy behind starting Africa Check? What was the purpose, the idea behind it?

Africa Check started in 2012, and actually has its origins in health misinformation. Our launch was inspired by a classic example in Nigeria in the early 2000s: a widely shared and widely believed rumour that the polio vaccine was being used to reduce Nigeria’s population.

Our founder, Peter Cunliffe-Jones, was living in Nigeria then, as bureau chief of the AFP news agency. Over the next few years, he followed reports of how false claims about polio vaccines had led to a surge in the number of polio cases in Nigeria and surrounding countries, and that is where the idea to start Africa Check was born – to do fact-checking, and say, “Look, we need
to do more when these rumours start circulating;” to actually debunk them, to proactively get accurate information out there.

Because the implications and impact of misinformation are very real – you know, when one says it’s a ‘life or death’ issue, it sounds like you might be exaggerating; but it really is that. Recent events show how misinformation can impact people’s behaviour. It impacts what they do, whether they wear a mask, decide to get vaccinated, wash their hands, and adhere to other preventative measures.

In the current Covid scenario, misinformation seems to be rife; and it seems that much of it stems from social media. Do you agree, and how does Africa Check tackle the matter?

Yes, there is [a lot], but there is also a massive increase and awareness of the dangers of misinformation. Over the last year we have seen an increase in interest in the work we do. Misinformation is circulating in huge amounts, and in different ways. Social media is a key channel; but we must not forget that there is also a huge amount circulating in offline spaces. Many people are dependent on radio for information – they are not on WhatsApp, they are not on social media.

So we are continuously looking at ways to get a better, more in-depth understanding of what is circulating in offline spaces. And that is where partnerships become key, and it’s something that we’re going to place a lot of focus on this year. Working with civil society organisations that have a strong presence within communities is so critical. They are key to understanding what claims are circulating, and what is driving them.

Rumours that the polio vaccine was being used to reduce Nigeria’s population led to a resistance to taking the vaccine and a subsequent increase in polio cases. Africa Check came into being to counter the misinformation. (Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

The problem seems to be big and impactful. Hence a big response is needed. How do you plan your response? Where do you even begin?

Africa Check believes in a 360-degree approach. You cannot just do one thing, and think that it’s the magic bullet that fixes the misinformation problem. It’s too complex. It’s too big for fact-checkers to solve by themselves, and certainly too big for Africa Check to solve. There is no way we could fact-check every false claim out there.

So partnerships are really, really key. We work with journalists; we work with a network of fact-checkers across the continent called the Africa Facts Network. We share knowledge, we share skills, we collaborate on projects, we have regular online meetings (on Slack, for example) where we share lessons, share experiences.

During the course of 2019, the network focused on issues such as Covid; but also, other things that fact-checkers battle with: how do I secure sustainability? How do I measure impact? All these issues are key to running a sustainable fact-checking organisation.

So, to fight misinformation, it requires collaboration between many stakeholders. What about the public itself, the users of social media?

One area that we also focused on last year was media literacy. We have always prioritised engagement with our audience, with our supporters. We invite them to send us claims to fact-check, for example. And it’s an important relationship for us, because as I say, we cannot fact-check everything. We have got to work harder to empower people, so that – when they get that WhatsApp, when they see something on Facebook – they pause; they think, they say: “Hang on a minute. Let me do a bit of digging, let me do a bit of research before I just forward this.”

And we know that often, people really do not have bad intentions. Of course you have disinformation; but if I think about family members, you are sharing something because you care, because you are worried; it is not because you have malicious intentions, it is often driven by real concern for those you love.

So we’ve done quite a bit of work on media literacy, and it’s something that we will continue doing. Last year, we launched a media literacy campaign called #KeepTheFactsGoing. We created voicenote episodes for WhatsApp in local languages. Those were also broadcast on community radio stations. In South Africa, we worked in isiZulu; In Kenya: Swahili; Senegal: Wolof; Nigeria: Pidgin and Hausa. We wanted to empower people to pause and think before they share. We focused on a wide range of topics around health and Covid, and we received very positive feedback from our subscribers. The fact that we produced these in different languages was also very important, to reach a wider audience.

So for us, that kind of work is really key – to work with media, to work with civil society, to build partnerships and to do more to empower people to be able to critically evaluate the flood of information they receive on a daily basis.

It seems that in order for you to do this important work, you cross over a bit. You’re a media organisation, but you’re also a bit of a civil society organisation; is that accurate? How do you balance the issues, so that people still trust the organisation? How transparent are you about what drives your work?

What you said is very key for us – transparency; because based on the very nature of our work, we have got to consistently make sure that we build trust. That is key: that people know, If I am looking for accurate information, I can trust Africa Check. And that’s not something we are complacent about; it’s something we take very seriously, and it’s something we work at continuously. We owe it to people to continuously take that very seriously. We are very transparent about the kind of work we do; we are transparent about who funds us, about who we partner with, and why we do what we do.

If we get something wrong, we correct it and we are transparent about it. We expect the same from others, so it’s only right that we are open about it as well.

Can you speak about the value of being a bit of both – journalists and civil society activists?

It is valuable that we can bring that perspective. We understand journalism, and the industry, and the challenges the media sector faces. But we also understand the incredible ability and power of civil society to create awareness, to drive change. In both instances, accurate information is the cornerstone that everything rests on. Whatever position you advocate for, it needs to be based on accurate information.

We are trying to create awareness of the importance of accurate information; but it’s equally important for us to better understand different communities. And that is where civil society can really bring a lot to the table, in terms of understanding why certain pieces of misinformation spread so easily, and what drives that, versus others that might not really get traction. So for us it is not just about we are creating awareness about the importance of accurate information; there is immense value in terms of the knowledge and the insight that civil society can bring, to help us work together to better tackle misinformation.

Would you argue that more media and civil society organisations should work in this way – to partner transparently in order to be more effective?

Yes, we’ve got to be quite innovative. The kind of pressure that the media is under was just accelerated by the Covid pandemic, and calls for new approaches. We are doing a project in Nigeria especially focused on health misinformation, where we are bringing together journalists and a lot of different important role players in health – from the Bureau of Statistics, to doctors, to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, to researchers. We started a WhatsApp group where people can flag misinformation, and then we can all work together to respond to it.

And we’ve had a lot of success with that – these journalists now have direct lines to experts. They don’t have to wait for a press release; you can quickly flag misinformation, you can respond to it much quicker. For example, we had a scenario around rumours about yellow fever in 2019, and it could quickly be flagged; the Centre for Disease Control was made aware of the
misinformation and could respond quickly, and we could get accurate information out there.

The pandemic has shown the need for these kinds of collaborative approaches, where you work together to solve the problem of misinformation.

So in sub-Saharan Africa, how hard is it to access good information – for instance, from governments, bodies, entities – to be able to fact-check whatever information is out there?

It’s not easy work. In the beginning, our questions to spokespeople and others often went unanswered. But as we became more active, built more partnerships, more awareness of our work, it became easier. You need to build a credible track record, and create awareness of your work. You have to work to get buy-in. It doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve got to do the work to build the relationships for people to realise that you are an organisation that is built on trust, that you are non-partisan, that you do not have a particular agenda in terms of the work you do.

In terms of you working with civil society: within sub-Saharan Africa, do you find that it’s easier in some countries, as opposed to others, to build those coalitions with civil society?

We have always been quite clear that it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ approach; we work in four countries (South Africa, Kenya, Senegal and Nigeria), and there are nuances to each country. For us, what is very important is that we have local teams in each country; so we’re not trying to build a partnership from South Africa in Nigeria. Our Nigeria team understands the context, and understands how we have to go about things to be impactful in our approach.

What is your reading of the lie of the land in terms of the media and their accuracy? We know the media in Africa faces very severe issues.

There are many complexities. Social media demands instant publishing. The processes to secure accurate information are disrupted. Resources are shrinking, and the media industry is struggling with financial sustainability. We need creative solutions, and partnerships between media houses and civil society organisations, to ensure accuracy. How can we collaborate
to get this right?

In South Africa, we see that a lot of content is moving behind paywalls. If I’m someone who cannot afford that, where do I go to find accurate information? And that can contribute to creating a vacuum that then allows for misinformation to spread, because I start becoming reliant on Facebook or fake websites to find news. I cannot access anything else. So I really do believe in journalism for the public good, and its central role in creating strong democracies. You’ve got to come together and find solutions to that. It’s critical that we say – as the Daily Maverick news service does – “We don’t need to be first; we need to be right.”

Are you looking at training for journalists and civil society organisations that can strengthen their ability to be accurate? Training on how to access the right people, fact-checking, how to handle controversial issues?

Yes, we do – and it’s very important. We offer a range of fact-checking trainings for journalists and civil society. It’s important to know where to get accurate data, what are the steps and fact-checking processes you can take to be sure you are accurate, etc. The more skilled one is, the more one breaks away from sensationalist headlines and stories to more accurate, informative information. It also helps because with Covid, everyone is affected; one cannot stand isolated from it. Training can help navigate the space and the fear and uncertainty for individuals who are now working in very difficult circumstances.

1 March 2021