Fact-checking as a social contract: An interview with GhanaFact’s Rabiu Alhassan | Fact-checking | DW | 02.10.2020
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Fact-checking as a social contract: An interview with GhanaFact’s Rabiu Alhassan

Re-establishing trust in the press and closing the gap between traditional and digital media are key goals as GhanaFact’s Rabiu Alhassan works towards carving out a place for fact-checking in Ghana.

Rabiu Alhassan is the founder and managing editor of GhanaFact. GhanaFact is a news fact-checking and verification platform established in August 2019 that operates under the umbrella organization FactSpace West Africa.  Alhassan is a journalist who has worked for Ghana’s TV and radio stations TV3 and Citi FM.

Alhassan has also worked as a digital journalist, contributing content to Citifmonline and Ringier. He holds a joint Erasmus Mundus master’s degree in Business and Finance, and Journalism, Media and Globalization from City, University of London in the UK and Aarhus University in Denmark.

He came up with the idea for GhanaFact during his postgraduate degree at City, University of London and took a version of it home to Ghana after research showed him that many Ghanaians had personal experience with mis- and disinformation and a huge majority believed there was a need for fact-checkers.

DW Akademie: What are the negative effects of misinformation in your country?

Rabiu Alhassan: Misinformation is something that should be taken seriously across the world and particularly in developing African countries that are quite young in terms of the practice of democracy. Specifically in Ghana there are concerns about disinformation because in the last few years, there have been increasing reports of violence against journalists. When you look at how people are losing trust in media and journalism practices in Ghana, it should be of concern to everybody. The media is said to be the fourth estate and key in the practice of democracy. So it’s important that our work could help restore faith in journalism and new media and help solidify Ghana's democracy.

Who, in your opinion, is the main actor when it comes to producing misinformation?

The ecosystem of disinformation in Ghana is very complex. We have bloggers who are taking advantage of the digital space and internet penetration in Ghana by putting out clickbait stories – stories that are largely unfounded, that have not been verified and that mainly help them get clicks to their websites. So, bloggers are key to the spread of this type of information in Ghana. Then there are citizen-journalists who are trying to practice journalism, but are not trained journalists. They sometimes blow things out of proportion and some of their posts on social media really need to be fact-checked. But the really worrying ones are the vigilante online hackers, who have been rented by politicians to do their bidding online. There is a recent report that came from, I think, Exeter University in the UK, which is quite revealing. It found that the two dominant political parties are actually employing armies online to promote their work and to put out hate speech and disinformation to attack people. Fact-checking platforms can help keep this information in perspective.

What are the main channels for spreading misinformation? Is it social media, or message chat groups or is it traditional media?

Social media is the primary platform for spreading disinformation in Ghana, and specifically Facebook, which is the leading social media platform in the country. So it needs to up its game in detecting disinformation. WhatsApp is also widely used in Ghana. It's the leading messaging platform in the country and when people see information on WhatsApp, they tend to believe it – especially the elderly folks. We are actively trying to curb the spread of misinformation on these platforms. We work with journalists who have developed credibility over a long period of time. We try to have them share the stories we have debunked in all the groups that they are part of.

What does the concrete work of fact-checking look like?

Either someone on the editorial team sees suspected mis- or disinformation online and brings it to the attention of everybody so we can discuss it and verify it, or we can be contacted by ordinary citizens via social media. Beyond that we then try to establish the source of the disinformation. We identify the person, we talk to them and ask why they put out this information, and do they have anything to back it up? Next we try and talk to all parties involved in the issue, and we get our team to do research around the disinformation.

After the research work is done, an article is produced. Then the editorial team checks if it meets our standards for fairness, transparency, and ethical journalism according to the principles of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). If it meets our editorial guidelines, then we publish our report on our platform.

Some would argue that fact-checking is not always the solution for every case, because people tend to stick to their opinion, even if they know that it is false. What are your thoughts on that?

What we’ve learned from our own first generation and second generation of fact-checkers is that it's not enough to just verify and publish. You have to verify and act. At GhanaFact, we consider ourselves a second-generation fact-checker and we try to publish and act. We are currently putting together a network of partners at traditional media platforms across the country, and we’re also working with young people to show them how to verify on their own, or how to leverage the fact-checked reports that we helped put out there, publish it on their platforms so it can get to the masses.

With some of our reports, we have gotten to a situation where we've had digital platforms actually take down stories, or issue apologies or corrections. We even had a member of parliament come to us to identify a mistake he made in a statement and correct it. So while there are limitations to how far fact-checking can go, there’s also good work we can do to hold people accountable.

Assuming you can’t respond to every instance of misinformation, how do you decide which cases you’re going to act on? What's your criteria?

We had an example recently where a satirical website put out a story saying that a widely used mobile money platform in Ghana had lost all its data due to a subsea cable being cut. Other websites started to pick up the story and reproduce it on their platform, and it started going viral. But the story didn’t come with a disclaimer saying that it is satire, and that it’s not true. We saw that people were talking about it on Facebook, and on Twitter. Then we saw the story on WhatsApp, and we quickly jumped on it and tried to quell it by reporting that it came from a satirical website that is not a reliable source for credible news. Shortly after that, the company responded, issuing a statement that the story is not true. Basically, that’s what we look for –

What are the most effective ways for reaching out to the public with your corrections and how do you do that?

First, we have limitations in terms of both personnel and in terms of the volume of this misinformation that is being put out there means that the amount of misinformation we are able to tackle is also limited[RM1] . Currently, we publish our fact-check reports on our platform. Recently, we've had aggregators go onto our platform and pick up our reports and publish them on their platforms, including the leading news online platform in Ghana which is “Ghana Web.” They have approximately 2.49 million page views a day, so it’s possible to have that many people reading our content daily. That’s how it works now, but our ambition is to develop a network across the country of traditional media platforms. Any time we put out fact-check reports, we'll be hoping that our media partners, traditional media partners, radio stations and TV stations will pick up those reports, so that we could reach a majority of the citizens.

Do you think that sooner or later it would be possible to make a business out of fact-checking? As a service for media?

I know that there are organizations that run fact-checking at a profit. So it's a viable alternative. When we set up GhanaFact, we didn’t want our editorial quality to, in any way, be influenced by a third party or advertiser. So we decided to start operating as a not-for-profit social enterprise. In the short term we’re hoping to get funding from grant-making organizations to operate. But in the medium to long term we are hoping to establish B2B relationships with social media companies. It's their responsibility to ensure that misinformation is not spread on their platform. Also we'll be hoping to set up training for media organizations because it is important for them to ensure that they have in-house fact-checkers.

There's a great deal of discussion, in Germany as well as in other countries, about laws for regulating social media forms. Do you think Ghana needs such legislation?

We've seen across Africa some governments take action in terms of passing such laws—I think Kenya was one. It passed a law to help quell the spread of disinformation. Specifically in Ghana, when our current Minister for Information was being vetted, he mentioned that he was going to help create such a law. But we need to be careful. We should not pass any laws that have not been well thought through, and we must engage all the relevant stakeholders so that we do not in any way subvert free speech. It's a difficult balance, and we would have to be sure we were not undermining our own democracy.

So what are your biggest challenges now?

Fact-checking is relatively new on the African continent, specifically in Ghana. So finding staff that are skilled at using the digital tools to do fact-checking is a challenge. The volume of disinformation that is being generated is also a challenge compared to the number of journalists we have to do the fact-checking. There is also the problem of timeliness. Disinformation can go viral in the blink of an eye. But it takes time to do the fact-checking, the verification and to put out a comprehensive report to debunk the disinformation.

Are there any new technologies that are proving useful to fact-checkers in Ghana?

I was recently introduced to the use of audio recognition to see if an audio file has been doctored, which is something often done leading into elections in most African countries, including Ghana. In the run-up to elections you’ll see audio files flying around of various personalities, with people claiming they’ve recorded them secretly. The people concerned then counter this by saying the files have been doctored. But now there are tools you can use to verify if these clips have indeed been doctored.

Actually, the telling example is a video clip of Ghana’s national security minister, who is currently in the news because there´s a video that he made with his girlfriend—he is a married man, but he made a video with his girlfriend. And it´s everywhere. His excuse is a doctored video. Well, now there are tools you can use to verify this.

Journalists have to be exposed to such technology – how to use audio-recognition, or basic tools to verify doctored audio, how to verify doctored videos or use reverse image search, to actually establish if a picture that has been put out is credible or not.

Are there risks for fact-checkers in Ghana?

There are big risks. We are going beyond, in a country where many people think journalism is only about reporting whatever a politician has said. Fact-checkers are breaking that social contract, and there is reason to fear that some people might not perceive that well. Ordinary journalists are being beaten. Some journalists who’ve produced investigative pieces have lost their lives. Investigative journalist Ahmed Hussein-Suale was killed, we only recently commemorated the one-year anniversary of his death. In the last 18 months more than 30 journalists have been beaten in their media houses in Ghana. This tells you that there´s a problem with the way people perceive journalists and the media. When fact-checking becomes established, it will be hitting hard, it will be reporting the truth and exposing people. People may be not receptive. But we´re hoping that with the credibility we´ve built over time, people will appreciate what we do, and maybe warm towards it. You also owe it to the public to put the truth out there.

What are you hoping for in terms of the future of fact-checking? And how can media organizations or other players support you?

I think media organizations should be open to the idea of not just reproducing what public officials  say. Journalism is about reporting the truth. Try to do your utmost to verify information before you publish. Given that, I think collaboration among traditional media platforms, new digital platforms and new fact-checking platforms is the way forward. Let’s leverage each other’s strengths and weaknesses and see how we can do the best job possible in reporting the truth to listeners and viewers.

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