One of the major worries which Nigeria faces as it approaches the 2019 elections is the widespread use of fake news by politicians and their aides. As a result, the federal government, scores of Non-Governmental Organisations, journalism schools, media organisations, and journalists’ unions have waged a huge war against fake news in the country through campaigns and training.
However, the weak point in these campaigns and training is that they seek to promote a culture of fact checking among Nigerians, believing that if people fact-check, they would defeat fake news. But how much trust should we repose in a fact checker? Brazil provides a clue.
The Brazilians were warming up for their general elections when shocking news broke out: “Pope Francis sends emissary to former President Lula in prison”. The emissary was said to have delivered to Lula a rosary blessed by the Pope as well as some comforting words in the Pope’s own handwriting.
This bordered on the scandalous and the government of Brazil was alarmed. How could the Holy Father identify with a former president jailed for corruption and money laundering? Lula was in April jailed for 12 years. He had appealed for permission to contest the presidency again from prison in the October elections and the Brazilian Clean Slate law had been evoked to disqualify him. Meaning, though Lula was in prison, he was giving the government some measure of nightmare. In fact, from prison, Lula had continued to beat the ruling government in most opinion polls. It was thus rattling that the Pope would reach out with his blessings to someone branded as an enemy of state and current administration.
Lupa, a Brazilian fact-checker swung into action. Lupa describes itself the Number One fact-checking agency in Brazil, and this may not be an empty boast. Being a Facebook partner, it has access to huge information and enjoys the respect of Brazilians. After ploughing the cyberspace back and forth, Lupa declared that the story of the Pope’s emissary visiting Lula in prison was fake news.
As one would expect, insult and boycott descended on the websites that had shared the story in the first instance. But Lupa was wrong. Days later, the Vatican confirmed that a former consultant of the Pope did visit the jailed president and had with him a blessed rosary as well as the Pope’s thoughts on
social movements in Brazil.
How much trust should we repose in a fact checker? The Lupa story strongly suggests the need to exercise restraint in trusting fact checkers.
Two important questions should be asked before trusting a fact-checking organisation. First question: is this a solo fact checker or a partnership? Solo fact-checking sites are lone-ranging organisations that lack the roundedness of partnerships of fact checkers.
The importance of partnership has been grasped by fact checking organisations worldwide and this has led to the emergence of networks and collaborations. For instance, global partnerships are emerging such as the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) complete with codes of conduct for fact checkers. In Nigeria, we have dubawa.org that works with AfricaCheck, and has been nurturing partnership with media organisations in order to provide reliable fact-checking services to citizens and organisations. Dubawa.org takes a step further by inviting citizens to be its partners in the process of de-faking the society especially in electoral seasons. Facebook is also partnering with others for third-party fact-checking services in Nigeria. Such organisations in collaborations should attract greater trust than solo fact
Second question: is there a chance that the fact checker is biased? Often, we forget that fact-checking organisations are made of humans – not just of algorithms. In fact, probably only a few can contemplate the possibility of a fact-checking site being wholly set up to foster a hidden agenda. If politicians and their aides set up whole news website for the purpose of propaganda, why can they not set up a “fact checking” site for the same purpose? As a matter of fact, such an act would be in perfect alignment with politicians’ declivity to discredit and dismiss as “fake news” every piece of information which does not massage their ego and support their ambition.
Training journalists and citizens to fact-check is offering them an incomplete package. There is the need to alert them to the possible existence of weak, mischievous or fake fact checkers, and equip them with that it takes to check the checkers.