On March 1, an Africa Check journalist was about to go on air on a South African radio show when a reader tweeted at them to verify a claim the reader had found online.
It said a worker at a Cadbury chocolate factory who was HIV positive has “added his infected blood to Cadbury products.” A photo of the alleged worker surrounded by police officers appeared alongside another photo of Cadbury chocolate bars.
“We knew this was obviously a hoax,” said Anim van Wyk, editor at Africa Check. “But because it came from a reader, we looked it up.”
Africa Check later published a story debunking the hoax and explaining the steps it took to disprove it. It also replied to the reader with the correct information.
“We always always try to keep in mind — being limited with resources and a small team — that we carefully select what we do look at,” said van Wyk. “We always ask: What would be the impact if we didn’t fact-check this?”
Launched in 2012, Africa Check is a fact-checking organization with four bureaus across the continent: South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria and Kenya.
Peter Cunliffe-Jones started the organization following the failure of World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF’s polio vaccination campaign at the hands of misinformation.
Cunliffe-Jones was reporting for Agence France-Presse in Nigeria in the early 2000s when false claims began to circulate about the vaccine.
“A few prominent Nigerian politicians and religious leaders [were] saying that the campaign was part of a Western plot to reduce the world’s Muslim population,” he said.
The campaign focused on areas where polio was still endemic, which was, in many cases, areas with a Muslim majority.
“They said it was actually not an anti-polio campaign but it was going to make women infertile and reduce population in Muslim areas.”
These false claims destroyed the campaign, and thousands of cases of polio emerged in the following years.
A few years later, Cunliffe-Jones led the creation of Africa Check, which was set up in Johannesburg at the University of the Witwatersrand’s journalism department. They received seed funding from the Africa News Innovation Challenge, which was run by ICFJ Knight Fellow Justin Arenstein.
The organization aims to provide accurate information about important public issues — such as politics and health — and to train journalists fact-check in other organizations.
Africa Check reacts to breaking news and also researches important longstanding issues like South Africa’s crime statistics, the cost of electricity in Kenya and the risks, diagnosis and treatment of Ebola.
“We try to follow the news cycle,” said van Wyk, “but are also standing a little bit outside of it.”
While Africa Check is mainly based online, it publishes on other platforms to reach wider audiences
Van Wyk said that in South Africa, many people get their news from radio shows. Many news consumers also have cellphone data plans that only include WhatsApp and Facebook, which requires AfricaCheck to be creative with the way they spread the results of their fact-checks.
Africa Check has partnerships with radio stations and broadcast organizations in the countries in which they work. Their reports are also available for other media outlets to republish.
“A lot of our reports get picked up and republished,” said Cunliffe-Jones. “There’s a lot of interest.”
Van Wyk also said the organization pays a lot of attention to what their readers want them to fact-check. Their audiences can contact them through email and social media or submit claims on the website.
Africa Check is also very keen on training other journalists. They offer different opportunities, from online guides about fact-checking to in-person courses.
They also run an awards program to encourage others to produce fact-checking reports. Last year, Cunliffe-Jones said they received entries from 159 journalists in 25 countries. Winners included Dorothy Otieno, a journalist at the Nation Media Group in Kenya for her series “Before you vote,” Alexandra Djotan of Radio Parakou in Benin for a story about politics and student journalist Moussa Ngom from Senegal for a fact-checking report about claims made by French President Emmanuel Macron about Africa.
Africa Check’s presence at two universities, the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and the EJICOM journalism school in Senegal, allow its team to teach lectures to aspiring reporters.
Faced with the growth of online misinformation, Cunliffe-Jones said he thinks Africa Check will move forward through partnerships with other organizations looking to improve accuracy and public debate.
“(Online misinformation) is a real and growing problem and (Africa Check) needs partnerships to tackle that.”