The importance of local context in taking on misinformation: Lessons from AfricaCheck

A woman walks past a wall painted with a slogan calling for action against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Nairobi, Kenya. May 18, 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo

Understanding the culture, conditions, and history of a community or place is vital to reporting on — and challenging — misinformation. A recent First Draft webinar tapped into the experiences of AfricaCheck to understand the role local context plays in misinformation.

The coronavirus pandemic is, by definition, a global problem, and so is the wave of misinformation that has accompanied it. But that doesn’t mean that the form misinformation and disinformation take, or the ways we can combat it, are the same across the planet.

As part of a webinar series looking at information disorder in different regions, First Draft spoke with AfricaCheck chief editor Lee Mwiti and the organization’s founder, Peter Cunliffe-Jones, to explore the way the “infodemic” has manifested in countries across the continent.

As Cunliffe-Jones explained, the idea for AfricaCheck came from a much earlier public health crisis: “In the early 2000s, I was a reporter for AFP [Agence France-Presse] in Nigeria. There was a polio vaccination campaign. There was misinformation. And as a result the authorities in northern Nigeria put in place a ban on the vaccine, and polio cases, which had been declining, surged.

“I felt that as a reporter I hadn’t done my job. When a governor stands up and says, ‘I’m banning polio vaccination because it’s a Western plot to cause harm to Muslims,’ in this case, the media, we reported that. We didn’t investigate those claims. That’s a failure of the process of reporting. You see misinformation has real victims.”

Now eight years old, AfricaCheck has offices in Johannesburg, Nairobi, Dakar, and Lagos, employing 35 people, most of them journalists. But while its focus is the African continent, Mwiti says it has found its audience reflects the global nature of online misinformation. “We thought the audience would be mainly Africa, but it is anything but. … It is a global problem.”

The audience may be global, but that physical presence across different African countries is incredibly important to ensure that AfricaCheck’s journalists are able to spot what those based elsewhere might miss. “It’s an attempt to understand the local contexts. … Because this is where we find a lot of misinformation finds its roots,” says Mwiti. “Being physically present gives us a grasp of the everyday conditions in these countries and where to find misinformation.”

The organization is also working with community groups — “everyone from thespians to farmers,” Mwiti said — to better understand the problems and ensure it reaches beyond those who consume its online output.

One of the reasons Mwiti says it is important to have that local knowledge is that it aids understanding of why misinformation takes on specific characteristics and spreads in specific forms. For instance, decontextualized content, such as images shorn of additional information that gives the true picture, is more prevalent in Kenya than more labor intensive examples, such as deepfakes, because there is a “low barrier to entry.” There is also high unemployment in Kenya, and young people see making money online, including through spreading disinformation, as something on which to focus.

Similarly, Mwiti says AfricaCheck has found that conspiracy theories are particularly common in South Africa, something he puts down partly to racial and economic inequality exacerbating fears of elites and groups that are not part of a person’s own “in-group.”

“In South Africa it is a story of inequality. It has the highest inequality in the world. … There is underlying intergroup conflict, between different races, access to the economy, access to resources.”

“The thing with race is you have people identifying race. You have an in-group identity, and you look to uphold that identity. … Part of that then involves seeing threats from other groups who identify differently. That’s the element we find in South Africa. … Access to the economy is still very dependent on race. It’s a rich ground for conspiracy theories. South Africa is one of the few countries [where] we see this in the continent.”

That local knowledge is just as important to effectively combat misinformation, and part of that is understanding who is going to be the most compelling voice to counter it. “If you are going to use certain channels, make sure the people you are speaking to have trust in them,” says Mwiti.

It also means trying a range of digital tools, in some cases following purveyors of misinformation onto the platforms where they are reaching the public. For instance, AfricaCheck runs WhatsCrap, an audio show collecting tips from the public about examples of misinformation, which are then addressed via voice messages. It currently has around 6,000 subscribers.

“There should be no one size fits all,” says Mwiti. “The solution should be targeted to the community.”

Accessing local or community-specific knowledge can also help journalists avoid the kind of stereotyping that is easy to fall into, such as the overuse of images of people from Asia wearing masks in the early days of the pandemic. The key, says Cunliffe-Jones, is having diverse teams.

“The strongest defense against stereotypes … is your colleague who says, ‘Well, it’s not like that, because I am from that part of the country, I am of that race, I am of that gender.’

“Fighting our own stereotypes, our own biases, is hard to do.”

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