The Role of Fact-Checkers in Nigerian Media

13 June 2024
13 June 2024

In August 2014, Nigerians were in a state of quandary due to the Ebola outbreak. While there were eight recorded casualties from the disease, two died because of the wave of information disorder surrounding the disease. A student started a broadcast message, asking people to bath with salt water, which circulated widely on social media. Unfortunately, within hours, the hoax message started trending online and eventually led to the hospitalisation of about 20 other people.


At the time of the incident, fact-checking as a standalone journalistic practice was not a common practice in Nigeria. In mainstream media, reporting was still mainly focused on events as they occurred and occasionally extending to include reactions to those events. While the media reported the government’s statement, many Nigerians ignored it as it simply contributed to a large amount of readily accessible, and often false information concerning the issue.


A year after the ‘Ebola salt water’ hoax, Nigeria went to the polls in 2015 while an unresolved enemy was rising: ‘information disorder’. The rise of social media and its impact on the elections led to media organisations taking initiatives to curb the menace of information disorder. One such way was fact-checking.


Consequently, a fact-checker’s job goes beyond just debunking to educating and uncovering individual bias even when not convenient
Why Fact-checking

Fact-checking was birthed as an information concept aimed at curbing information disorder. It primarily aims to correct a false claim and present a fact-based clarification. The goals are accountability, education, restoration of public trust, and removal of bias and conspiracy theories.


While fact-checking promotes public education and accountability, it has not fully eradicated cognitive biases and conspiracy theories. Hence, its effectiveness hangs on the willingness of individuals to consider opposing viewpoints and information. The ‘think for yourself theory’ underscores this dynamic – where  biases and distorted truths can perpetuate unfounded theories. Based on these factors, while fact-checking serves as a critical tool in combating misinformation, fact-checking does not ensure the complete elimination of false narratives.


Consequently, a fact-checker’s job goes beyond just debunking to educating and uncovering individual bias even when not convenient. It also involves the careful research of context to further provide a better appreciation of unfolding events. Context aims to provide the background, circumstance of an event or full information and significance of a subject. Doing this helps readers and fact-checkers uncover the intention of an action, statement or activity. While fact-checkers are obligated to provide factual information, the context of a subject helps in discerning how to respond.


Limitations to a fact-checkers job however concerns the bureaucracy of retrieving information from sources. This includes slow response times, restricted access to certain documents, or complex procedures for requesting information. In cases where it applies, fact-checkers are burdened with the task of being resourceful in retrieving relevant information that would aid their research and investigation. In doing so, alternative sources, utilize advanced research methodologies, or use technological tools to gather the necessary information to verify facts accurately are adopted.


Threshold for Fact-Checking

To properly discern claims, fact-checkers are burdened with ethical and in-house checks for proper discernment. This is because a claim’s prominence doesn’t mean it’s significant, whereas a significant claim might also not lead to its virality.


A prominent case was a fact check by CDD on an audio ascribed to Atiku Abubakar, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) presidential nominee. The claim alleged that Atiku, alongside other prominent party leaders, intended to rig the 2023 presidential elections. Considering the timing of that audio, on the eve of the election, it posed a risk to the presidential hopeful. The capacity for attacks against the candidate, his party and his supporters were high, as well as voter suppression (low voter turnout) due to possible loss of interest in the process by the electorate.


Fact-checkers often group claims according to the claimants' prominence, the claim's significance, potential and dangers, the audience or virality of the claim, and the reactions eliciting from a claim.


A well-followed claimant, usually a popular citizen with many followers online and offline, is often considered by fact-checkers because of the potential of their reach. A significant claim also involves whether the topic is trending and likely to capture public attention. Discussions about elections three years in the future are less likely to take that much precedence now. The potential disruptiveness of a claim is also gauged in its capacity to result in harm against an individual, select group or society at large—as most identity-based slurs tend to be.


The virality of a claim refers to the audience the claim gets to, who the people involved in the claim are and their personalities. For example, a claim telling students that not eating on the day of an exam helps them pass would sound serious to students but would not be taken into cognisance when told to workers who hardly write any exams. The reactions from a claim also determine what approach fact-checkers would take in handling the situation. A good example is the reactions that emanated from a claim that ISWAP was responsible for the killing of two Igbo traders in Kano. 


Fact-checkers consider all these above characteristics when addressing claims, however, they sometimes focus on each aspect at a time.


In discerning, fact-checkers are also not supposed to take single approaches in addressing information disorders.
When Claims Are Ignored

There are situations where fact-checkers decide to ignore claims completely. Ignoring claims mostly happens when the claim is deemed insignificant. Sometimes, doing so is a strategic move to “let sleeping dogs lie”. But fact-checkers also understand that arguments might emerge from the earlier statement that no information disorder is insignificant because a little spark often creates a forest fire. However, in fact-checking, sometimes ignorance is bliss.  


Chris Oyakhilome, a popular televangelist, made claims about a conspiracy related to malaria vaccines in an 8-minute video clip released in August 2023. However, neither the video nor the claims gained prominent attention from the media. Further analysis found that, despite reaching many people, the claim didn't have a significant impact or generate much reaction. As such, fact-checking it would only raise more attention, which is exactly what fact-checking seeks to avoid. However, almost a year later, his views gained traction, leading to fact-checks being done on the subject. It is worth noting that Oyakhilome had previously spread misinformation about COVID-19 in 2020, putting him on the health misinformation watchlist.


Conversely, a claim by Adamu Garba, a former presidential aspirant, alleging that Peter Obi ate a Nigerian delicacy alongside two bottles of beer with the ‘Biafra’ trademark was quickly debunked. Why? Both the claimant (Adamu Garba) and the target (Peter Obi) are prominent figures in Nigeria’s political landscape hence their words carry significant media attention and reactions. Likewise, the claim tapped into a sensitive issue that borders on the secessionist group Biafra, which could lead to ethnic-related slurs and targeting.


In discerning, fact-checkers are also not supposed to take single approaches in addressing information disorders. While fact-checks are the primary approach used, other formats such as explainers, infographics, blog posts, online engagements and training could be helpful. The approach adopted is determined by the checker's understanding of the situation and, in some cases, more than one approach is needed.



Who Checks the Fact-checkers?

While fact-checkers are laced with the responsibility of maintaining a clean information ecosystem, questions on who keeps the fact-checkers in place still abound. One major requirement of fact-checking is laying out the verification process of every fact-check to ensure transparency. Despite this, every fact-check is expected to go through at least an editor before publication.


Ultimately, the major accountability check for a fact-checker is the public. When there is a sense of bias or accuracy, the public is allowed to raise complaints on the issue as well as write to the International Fact Checking Network (IFCN) to express their grievance. Aside this, fact-checking organisations registered with the IFCN, often highlight on their pages when corrections or changes have been made to a fact-check. At the core, a fact-checker is only as good as how their fact-checks are received. Some are subjected to public backlash from groups and individuals who have interests in the report but, for the most part, citizens have become invested in checking claims and engaging with the process. This can help in ensuring a more civic-minded and engaged electorate.



Chioma Iruke is factchecker at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD-West Africa)



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