To mark International Fact-Checking Day on 2 April, Dubawa hosted the general public to a two-hour webinar on Zoom which was also live streamed on Facebook on 1 April under the theme “International Fact-Checking Day: Experiences of victims of fake news and fact-checkers”. The webinar, set in an informal atmosphere, offered seven panelists the opportunity to share their unique experiences with information disorder.
The first set of panelists were two victims of misinformation – a Ghanaian politician and a Nigerian pastor. George Andah, former Deputy Communications Minister and Member of Parliament for Awutu Senya West in Ghana and Daniel Olugbenga Olugola, pastor and founder of Beautiful Feet World Missions in Nigeria, took turns giving air to the effects fake news has had on them.
George Andah, who was alleged by some websites and social media users to have displayed a gun at a registration centre to scare his opponents, delineated the incident as a photo of him musketeering at a traditional coronation event taken out of context to depict the supposed political situation. Andah expressed the difficulty in dealing with misinformation and its concomitant emotions.
“It is quite difficult dealing with such false accusations. It is disorientating, it is confusing… to some extent it even gets quite painful. It makes you really mistrust people. It leaves you with the fear of human interactions and you sometimes become paranoid as to who else you can trust,” Andah said.
Andah further revealed that having served in frontline politics, one was regarded as fair game for such propaganda and has been a victim of several politically-motivated allegations beside this particular incident. Nonetheless, as a matter of principle, he resorted to taking legal action against these cases of false representation. He mentioned the Electronics Communications Act as the law protecting victims of misinformation and emphasised to all participants on the webinar, the need to understand and use this law (as he did, and has won some cases) to deter perpetrators of fake news from further propagating such stories.
Daniel Olugbenga Olugola, also recounted his decision to appeal for financial support on social media to aid his ailing daughter but was exploited by scammers which resulted in a diversion of the money intended for a test. Olugola’s daughter was diagnosed with a sinonasal tumor and he had gone through the emotional trauma of seeing his daughter in pain which had him in tears daily. In spite of this, several people who feigned to be in solidarity with his family and reposted his appeal on social media, edited some of the information in order to transfer the financial donations into their personal accounts other than that of the Olugolas.
Unfortunately, Olugola’s daughter died after a complication – a situation he described as incomprehensible. Similarly, he stated that he could not comprehend people’s intention to profit from his family’s ordeal.
“That thing that happened, this misinformation, that scam, it really made me think… how can some people be listening to situations that are making a family cry, and how can they see it as an opportunity to be making money for themselves,” Olugola said.
Olugola revealed that to his surprise, other pastors were found to be involved in this spread of misinformation to exploit him. He further cautioned against the severe consequences misinformation can have, especially on people in pain.
The next set of panelists were five fact-checkers from verified fact-checking organisations in Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. Oluwasegun Olakoyenikan from AFP Nigeria, Silas Jonathan from Dubawa Nigeria, Roselena Ahiable from Dubawa Ghana, Sani Abdul Rahman from GhanaFact and Alie Tarawally from Dubawa Sierra Leone described the modus operandi and challenges involved in their line of work in the era of a COVID-19 pandemic.
Sani Abdul-Rahman, who practised as a journalist for over five years before engaging in full-time fact-checking in Ghana, foregrounded the difference between the work of a mainstream journalist and the work of a fact-checker. He stated that by simply publishing the news reports as a journalist, there was always the interest to break the story first instead of getting it right. This, he identified, was a fuel of misinformation and disinformation in the entire world – a situation he appreciated during the course of fact-checking.
“When I started fact-checking I had to first apologise to my conscience and to the many people that have come across my reports as a journalist because I realised that I was just confusing people. If I put together all that I’ve gathered in my work as a journalist, I can say 90% of the report and the data that I churned out in my report were inaccurate and I got to realise that when I started fact-checking,” Rahman said.
Roselena Ahiable further listed the procedure of fact-checking which would involve media monitoring on both social media and legacy media to source for claims, researching, interviewing both the people implicated in the story and authoritative sources, writing the report, editing and consequently, publishing the check. She emphasised the importance of timeliness in producing fact-checks to help discerning audiences engage with the truth of a topical or trending issue.
Silas Jonathan added that for claims which did not necessitate interviewing people such as manipulated videos and photos, the fact-checker was required to apply the appropriate digital tools to verify such content.
All fact-checkers agreed that audience acceptance was a challenge to their work. Olowasegun Olakoyenikan, who monitors the information ecosystem in some anglophone West African states, attributed the information disorder in Nigeria to the country’s large population and wide internet penetration of its citizens. He further stated that the nature of Nigeria’s diverse culture, religion and beliefs affected how polarised a fact-check could become if it favoured or disfavoured the parties incriminated in a story. Abdul-Rahman mentioned the similarity of this situation in Ghana by exemplifying the major culprits to be politicians and their followers. He stated that such a category of people, when found to be on a favourable side of the check would exalt the work of fact-checkers, but when found to be on a disfavourable side of the check, tend to consequently denigrate the work of fact-checkers.
Further, fact-checkers agreed that the inconsistencies in data sets and the unavailability of the sources to a data was also problematic to them, where Abdul-Rahman gave a number of instances he had encountered such with claims made by Ghanaian Ministers of State.
Alie Tarawally, in response to the severity of information disorder confronting the Sierra Leonean mediascape, justified the legislation against misinformation to facilitate fact-checking. He explained that particularly because of the situations of the Ebola epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic in the country, the need for a cyber law to govern fake news that continues to spiral on social media was instituted.
All fact-checkers acknowledged the gratification that resulted from the fulfilled objective of accurately informing people. They also agreed that in spite of the unending cycle of misinformation and verbal attacks, fact-checkers needed to be intentional with occasionally taking a break from media monitoring to help them de-stress from the mental fatigue, trauma and depression engendered by the nature of their work. Additionally, it was agreed that more lingual channels should be open and made more accessible to inform the misinformed local dialect speakers in African countries, not just English-speaking audiences, to further the impact of fact-checking.