Organization / Welcome Eric Mugendi, Our Program Manager in East Africa
Eric Mugendi

Meedan is excited to have Eric Mugendi on board as our Program Manager for East Africa! Meedan has partnered with fact-checking groups and independent media organizations in the region. Mugendi, as he prefers to be called, continues to strengthen and expand the partnerships with his background and experience in fact-checking.

1. What has been your experience before you joined Meedan?

Before joining Meedan as the program manager for East Africa, I worked as a features writer, a contributor and editor for a technology website, and most recently as managing editor of PesaCheck, a fact-checking initiative based in Nairobi, Kenya. My background is in environmental studies, and while this was a significant shift away from my training, I think in some ways it helped to give me perspective and an understanding of the problem of misinformation from a scientific point of view.

2. As a fact-checker, tell us about one exciting and insightful experience that has shaped your perspective and work.

A month after I had joined PesaCheck and started working as a fact-checker, Kenya had a contentious presidential election in August of 2017 that was repealed by the Supreme Court. The court decided that the election had to be conducted afresh, and in the period before the rerun, there was a significant increase in false information online. We began to notice a number of attempts to manipulate the electorate and mainstream media outlets, which was a cause of concern, but at the same time, it was a great opportunity to make a real impact, given that fact-checking as a standalone practice was a fairly new field at the time.

Being at the helm of a fact-checking initiative, this was a great time to learn about the nature of misinformation, and one way that we did this was to put out factual information consistently and constantly. We spent a lot of time doing trial and error to see what would work in our context, and were able to develop and adapt a methodology that was effective and that could be easily adapted into a variety of contexts. The result was a well-oiled machine that was able to scale up from three countries when I joined to nine by the time I had left, and one that made an impact on the information landscape in the region.

3. What is the East African media and fact-checking ecosystem like? What are the strengths and what gaps do you see?

The East African media ecosystem is quite well developed, with a mix of large and small outlets, online-only outlets and multimedia content producers all competing for audiences and innovating in interesting ways. However, dwindling revenues and increased competition for attention, coupled with disruption from smaller, more nimble players, means that legacy media houses have to do more to retain the attention of the public. Government control is not as overt as it once was, but it does manifest in new, challenging ways such as internet shutdowns, further complicating the relationship between publishers, audiences and regulators.

One thing that I see as a positive trend is the increased adoption of fact-checking by mainstream media outlets, meaning that it is no longer a niche pursuit. The public is becoming more aware of the need for media and information literacy, and I think this is a great avenue for engagement and audience-building for fact-checkers. One worrying gap is the shift of misinformation from public platforms and open spaces online to closed apps and groups that fact-checkers do not have access to, making it difficult to gauge the scope of the problem, as well as to respond quickly before the false information being shared goes viral. However, with more fact-checking work being done on a growing number of platforms, as well as increasing use of automation and machine learning to reduce the time it takes to respond to requests for information, I believe that it is possible to reduce this gap with time.

4. What brought you to Meedan?

I had worked with the team at Meedan on a number of projects, starting with monitoring the repeat presidential election in Kenya, and eventually within the Check Global project. The biggest draw for me was the scope of the work that Meedan does, as well as the opportunity to work with people across the globe working on the same things I had been working on as a fact-checker. My work with Meedan gives me an opportunity to add value to the fact-checking community, and to support the work that others continue to do in the space.

5. What’s a project you’re excited about right now?

One project I am excited about is the third-party fact-checking project on WhatsApp that Meedan is supporting. Messaging apps have long been seen as the weak link when it comes to the spread of false information, but this project aims to mitigate the problem by automating fact-checking and giving people a way to check the authenticity of the information they are consuming. As a result, two problems that fact-checkers face - the amount of time it takes to produce a fact-check and the need to share this information with the relevant recipients - have become much easier to solve. I am also excited about election fact-checking, given that one of my earliest encounters with the field of verification was through an election. There are lots of opportunities for engagement through the Check Global program as well, and I am looking forward to growing our presence and making an impact in my region and beyond.

6. Tell us some fun facts about Mugendi!

  • I love trivia. I have a team that I regularly take part in quiz nights with a team of friends, and we’ve won a number of times.
  • Before joining Meedan, I wrote and edited for two technology blogs, and this is where my interest in the intersection of technology and media comes from.
  • One thing that I don’t think many people know about is that I love plants. Currently I have a number of seedlings that I’m growing in my house, and I’m always on the lookout for more. I have a fully grown chili plant in my kitchen as well. I think the plants I’m growing reflect my philosophy of project management - sometimes you’ll have to get your hands dirty, and you may not see the progress on the surface for a while, but it all comes together eventually.

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