The problem of disinformation in Africa cannot be solved from an American or Western centric perspective. Kenya-based verification initiative PesaCheck uses an approach that is tailored to the local context.
Eric Mugendi is the managing editor of PesaCheck and a writer who largely focuses on technology development in Africa. PesaCheck is a Kenya-based verification initiative that is helping to kickstart fact-checking across East Africa. It was founded in 2016 by Catherine Gicheru and Justin Arenstein and incubated by Code for Kenya as an innovateAFRICA winner. It tracks political statements by politicians and decodes budget and census data, and helps media organizations and NGOs to establish their own fact-checking teams.
DW Akademie: How did PesaCheck get started?
Eric Mugendi: Initially we started out verifying financial and statistical numbers quoted by public figures. We were fact-checking statements about how public finances have been used and how resources are being allocated and utilized. With time, however, we became more a general fact-checking organization, looking into potential misinformation on different platforms like WhatsApp and Twitter. We have a partnership with Facebook to look into content in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Why is it necessary to have organizations like yours?
It is because of the way false information is spreading and is becoming a lot more coordinated. We need to have organizations that do fact-checking and look into false content as a public service. This was previously done by the media, but the media landscape is changing very quickly and traditional players in this space are struggling to keep up. They have to cut down on staff, they are getting less revenue and they have to reallocate their resources. Because of that, people are getting information from other places and that's where false information creeps in. We have a team in Kenya that is able to look into content specific to the Kenyan context. We are able to understand it from a local perspective, which is very useful.
In your country or regional context, what are the main sources for disinformation or misinformation?
I would say political actors are a huge source of false information based on what we've seen. They make certain claims knowing that the information to hold them accountable might be really difficult to find. The other thing that we've seen is a lot of health misinformation. People make certain claims, especially now that diseases like cancer are becoming a lot more prevalent. These people are not doing it out of malice. They feel like they are doing a public service. They don't have a way to check and verify this information or they might not be aware of that. In these health misinformation cases, false information is mixing with legitimate information and then it is really hard to pick up where it's coming from. Especially because most people are getting their news from social media, from messaging platforms and from lots of other different sources.
Could you describe some of the effects misinformation or disinformation has on society?
I would say it is the loss of trust in institutions, when people are spreading false information trying to manipulate an election or start to manipulate other people's perceptions for personal gain. This wastes the time of media organizations. They have to go out and fight false information instead of just covering regular news. When governments are producing misinformation themselves, they're making it possible for everything that they do to be questioned.
Do you think that fact-checking itself can solve this? What do you think works in this context to mitigate and what not?
I would say fact-checking is bringing credibility and engagement at some level. We have been holding public records accountable to the point where we now see politicians and public figures trying to make fewer statements that we can fact-check. They know that there are people out there who can look into statements and public declarations. So they know they are being watched and they know that there is someone who is going to hold them accountable, whereas previously they could say whatever they wanted.
What can fact-checking solve and what can it not? What else is needed besides fact-checking?
One thing that we can't really solve as fact-checkers is people's inherent biases. People fall for false information because they like to believe in it. And because of that, I've seen people constantly getting fooled by stories that have been debunked over and over again. That shows that there's a need for more media literacy, more awareness of the different tools and learning to keep a clear eye on which sources the information is coming from. And that is nothing we can do as fact-checkers by ourselves because there is a system-wide need. When children start their school education, they need to be taught how to critically question some of these things, so that when they grow up, they become conscious consumers of information. If it's not early enough, they start falling for false stories.
What is the role of the platforms? Do you think they do enough and do you think that they are aware of their responsibility?
The biggest contribution of the platforms is scaling up the problem of false information to a point, where it has now become an international and not a regional problem. You have people in lots of different parts of the world who can inject false information into whichever area. These platforms are so open and so accessible to everybody that it has become very simple to spread disinformation. Some establish closed off groups, so they can engage in false information without being questioned. On the other hand some people are becoming more conscious users and learn how to deal with misinformation. It's necessary for platforms like Facebook to understand the individual context of the countries they operate in.
So when we are coming up with solutions, what we do now as a third party contractor with Facebook is tailored to the local context and there's an understanding of how local markets operate. So they don’t come in with what I call Silicon Valley sensibilities, where they’re trying to solve the problems from an American or Western centric perspective. But how can we as people really operate in these areas? How can we engage with people to a level where we're able to make them more accountable for the content that's published? At the moment people are not actually taking responsibility for what they do. And what the platforms are trying to do is to pass it off to third party contractors. Then they maintain the appearance that they're doing something, but they're just treating the symptoms and not treating the actual problem.
So what are your biggest hurdles that you have to overcome in your daily business? Is it the budget, is it qualification, is it the amount of information you have to deal with?
Our biggest challenge is how manual the process of fact-checking is. We have to do a lot of research finding the claims that have been published and where they have been made, and then come back with factual information and produce the content. So if there were a way to simplify the process, or we had a way to automate the collection of claims and a database of verification information that we can look into, that would be very helpful. Our fact-checking work is very statistical. It's driven a lot by budgets and public finance records and other documents. We are fortunate in Kenya to have a situation where the government regularly publishes these documents. But at the same time, you have to go in, scrape the data and clean it and check if the data is legit, so it's not as seamless as we would have hoped.
Could you give us an outlook? What do you think, will things become worse or better?
I think, things are going to get worse, unfortunately. Because as it stands now, there are a lot more people coming online for the first time and they don't have a point of reference for credible factual information. They are much more likely to fall for some of these false stories depending on the number of people who are sharing it. So it becomes even more important for us to work with the platforms to a point where they're able to pre-empt the false information that's being shared on the platforms and to make people more literate or more conscious consumers of information.
I like the idea of the oversight board that Facebook is setting up, because it shows that they are committing to getting someone to have a bigger picture of what they are trying to do and at the same time they're able to stay ahead of all the potential challenges that are coming.
We´ve seen situations where fact-checking organizations have pulled out of the platform, because they believe that all they're doing is sanitizing Facebook’s reputation. So having an independent oversight board that's actually consequential - it is a good step.
It needs to be Facebook that is making people responsible for the content they´re listing, because as of now, the only real punishment is financial. They're taking away people's ability to monetize false content. But at the same time other people are less swayed by that consequence, they are still able to post whatever content.
If Facebook had their own internal fact-checking process, so that we were not just coming in at the very end of it, then that will be more sustainable in the long run.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.