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Network / Elections, Promises, and COVID-19 : Three Years of Supporting Fact-Checking and Verification in East Africa
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In July 2018, I traveled to Zimbabwe to join The Carter Center to work with civil society organizations and newsrooms on tracking and addressing misinformation around the first harmonized elections in the country after Robert Mugabe stepped down.

When I arrived in Zimbabwe, election-related propaganda was all over news media and social media. As an Egyptian, I was all too familiar with this kind of information ecosystem: mainstream media is owned by the state, and its goal is simply to amplify and spread one side of the story — that of those in power. Wandering the streets of Harare, it was impossible not to notice the dominance of the ruling party Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) in its use of posters and billboards. Zimbabwe’s digital streets — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, were similarly flooded with pro-Zanu-PF content: memes, articles, and videos all designed and spread to support the long-time ruling party.

Though we had worked for more than a decade in North Africa, at the time our work in sub-saharan Africa was in its early days. Meedan was in the middle of developing a network in East Africa, which included launching a partnership with PesaCheck to support the fact-checking ecosystem in the region. Fact-checkers at PesaCheck integrated Meedan’s open source toolkit, Check, into their workflows and verified statements from public figures in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Coming to Zimbabwe in 2018, we found a nation and people full of hope and looking for the political change needed to address decades of corruption and the challenges of their brutal economic situation. In an earlier post this year, I wrote about how Robert Mugabe’s retirement from his presidency in 2017 opened up the region to a new era. Our invitation to join the Carter Center team in Zimbabwe to help partners monitor and assess the role of online mis and disinformation represented the first time in more than a decade that international election observers were able to monitor an election in Zimbabwe, and as such certainly represented the first online election media analysis effort there. . In this spirit the 2018 Zimbabwe presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections (harmonized elections) took place on July 30, 2018.

Our collaborations in Zimbabwe included the fact-checking initiative ZimFact as well as the Centre for Innovation & Technology (CITE), a group in South Zimbabwe that supports initiatives led by youths, journalists, and designers.

A new phase of Check Global: Post-Election Narratives

The Kenya elections in 2017 were “marred by serious human rights violations, including unlawful killings and beatings by police during protests and house-to-house operations” according to Human Rights Watch. Under those circumstances, Check Global fact-checking partners CITE (in Zimbabwe) and PesaCheck (in Kenya) continued to verify social media evidence after the elections and focused on how to hold politicians accountable to their constituencies.

Currently, PesaCheck in Kenya is building a prototype of Wajibisha, which means “to hold accountable,” a promise tracker with a focus on fact-checking budgetary promises and election promises, for initial deployment in Kenya and Uganda. Promises are logged on Meedan ‘s Check platform covering the following thematic areas - Health, Housing, Jobs, Governance, Environment, Traffic Management and Social Inclusion (Youth, Women and Persons with Disabilities). Updates on the progress of delivery on these promises will then reflect on the main promise tracker website, which is not yet available to the general public but will be soon.

Eric Mugendi, the managing editor of PesaCheck, explains their use of Check::

“Check as a platform has enabled us to collaborate both within and outside our organization to fact-check and verify content. Our team is distributed in three countries, and we work on different platforms. Check allows us to keep track of what everyone is doing, and ensures that our work is done to the same standard. We are exploring new ways to use the platform, and the most promising one so far is in keeping track of promises by elected figures. “

In Zimbabwe, CITE is working on The Digital Media for Accountability Project. This is an innovative project that combines digital technology, journalistic fact-checking skills and capacity building to promote social accountability at the local government level. Focusing mainly on Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second capital city, the project aims to track and check statements made by the Bulawayo City Council. CITE continues to use Check in their daily fact-checking workflow to provide citizens with timely, relevant and accurate information on issues of local governance, service delivery and public resources management.

Calling Check’s workflow “harmonious” and “intuitive,” Sean Ndlovu, co-founder of CITE, said:

“The Check platform has allowed us at CITE to be able to follow up on announcements, promises and proclamations made by local authorities in Zimbabwe in a systematic and archival way. The Check platform also allows us to collaborate as a team by assigning tasks to each other in a seamless way thus helping the team to report on claims in a simple and standardised format. “

Check Global intersections with different projects at Meedan

We’ve also expanded our work with our current Check Global partners in East Africa in that it is also feeding the capacity of our Claims and Memes Database (CMDb) project. The CMDb project was possible by the generous support of Open Tech Fund (OTF), and it’s an API-accessible repository of fact checked claims and debunked visual misinformation from internet repressive countries, where disinformation and social network manipulation have become key censorship strategies. As we witnessed visual misinformation travel between Kenya and Zimbabwe during the elections, we realized the importance of creating an annotated and verified database for claims and memes.

In July 2019, I was honored to travel to Kenya to participate in a collaborative pop-up newsroom to counter misinformation during the Kenyan census. This effort was organized by Meedan and supported by Article 19. During this pop-up workshop we collected, annotated, and verified Kenyan memes based on the census.

What’s new for Check Global in East Africa in 2020?

As the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic and a global health crisis, health misinformation and rumors have multiplied across platforms, thus undermining efforts for producing reliable and factual information around the virus.

East African countries face different challenges on many levels, not only in terms of weakened public health services and infrastructure, but also rising mis/disinformation on social media platforms, lacking access to public records and information, severe cutbacks to free speech, internet and telecom accessibility issues, and worsening civil rights violations.

Meedan launched new COVID-19 microgrants to support independent media projects in Africa. Our goal was to support journalists, activists and citizen journalists to explore open source investigations and verification storytelling.

We are monitoring the COVID-19 situation closely in East Africa with our partners, with whom we are discussing and adapting new ways of virtual training programs that, while it will no longer require the physical attendance of participants, will continue to keep them involved.

CITE just launched an online learning platform ‘Funda’ (meaning ‘learn’ in Ndebele), relying on online learning resources from Nawa Media, a separate Check Global project that brings together journalism students across five countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen) across North Africa, West Asia to instill the next generation of Arab-speaking journalists with open-source investigation tools, fact-checking skills, and an acumen for digital and media literacy.

Separately, PesaCheck is creating two massive open online courses (MOOC), one on general fact-checking processes using Check and another on how to build Promise Tracking using Check. PesaCheck will conduct virtual training using these modules with four different newsrooms in Kenya.

This increased inter-partner collaboration, not only manifested in East Africa, has accelerated and strengthened Meedan’s aspirations to bring our partners together within the Check Global Network. The Network virtually launched on May 5, 2020..

Events

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are not attending events this year, as a number of the conferences we typically attend have been canceled. That said, we are moving this energy online and hosting a series of online conversations. Please stay tuned for more info on these virtual events by following us on social media or on our newsletter.

We invite all our partners to send us tips and ideas for our weekly newsletter, The Checklist, weekly misinformation news around the world. Meedan’s Digital Health Lab is working with a team of scientists to answer the most important and complex pandemic questions. Each week, we highlight the most important questions being answered by experts. Subscribe here.

Are you an African organization or group interested in using Check in your editorial workflow? We are expanding our work on the continent and would love to hear from you. Please get in touch wafaa{at}meedan.com.

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