When Rabiu Alhassan was in the final term of his journalism master’s at London’s City University, he decided he wanted to go home to Ghana to set up a new kind of media outlet, free from political or corporate influences that would seek the truth and hold the powerful to account.
From a seed of an idea, GhanaFact was born. It is just one of many fact-checking organisations around the world that have come of age during the coronavirus pandemic.
“When we started we were gearing up to the election of 2020 and we were focused on governance and the economy,” says Mr Alhassan, who runs GhanaFact from a small office in Accra. “Then the whole world woke up to the pandemic and issues about misinformation.”
From false claims, often spread by influential religious leaders, that the vaccine makes you magnetic, infertile or sick, to rumours that the jab is a ruse to insert a microchip – combatting misinformation has kept GhanaFact’s team on its toes. One of their latest factchecks is entitled FALSE: Constant sex does NOT kill coronavirus, refuting claims in a fake video circulating on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.
“We were thrown into the deep end with health reporting, it was not part of our arsenal,” he says.
GhanaFact quickly joined the International Fact-Checking Network, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated alliance of more than 100 factcheckers around the world, and threw its resources behind debunking Covid fictions.
At first, even as the pandemic spread globally, there were no recorded cases in Ghana. GhanaFact found itself grappling with claims that Africans were naturally immune to Covid-19, or that the virus could not survive in the African heat, Mr Alhassan recalls.
“By the time the virus arrived, the focus had shifted to local remedies – people pushing out all sorts of concoctions, like a cup of warm water mixed with ground charcoal could be a cure or chewing on raw onions. Then came the misinformation around the vaccine.”
GhanaFact counters each spurious claim with factual responses from the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA), Ghana’s health service or other credible sources. The factchecks are posted on its website, social media and through TV and radio channels, with the information translated into 20 local languages.
“African-based fact-checking organisations play a crucial role,” says Sergio Cecchini, Coordinator of AIRA, a World Health Organisation initiative. “Grass-roots networks of journalists and fact-checkers can represent a key card in dismantling and countering misleading information around COVID-19 and other public health emergencies.”
In London, the well-established fact-checking service Full Fact has also pivoted to take on Covid-19 myths.
“We are very interested in seeing some of the patterns and evolving claims,” says Full Fact’s Ross Haig. “Fact checking is just the beginning of the work for our team. We reach out to media organisations to correct the record so the original claim is corrected too.”
While the UK’s vaccine rollout has been one of the speediest in the world, Full Fact saw uptake of the jab was slower among certain groups - which were also those likely to more susceptible to misinformation - including pregnant women.
Alarmed by a rise in hospitalisations of pregnant women with Covid-19, Full Fact has partnered with the women’s rights charity Pregnant Then Screwed on a new WhatsApp helpline to provide factual answers to concerns about the vaccine.
Full Fact has found no evidence that the vaccine affects pregnancy or causes miscarriages. But Mr Haig says: “we don’t give advice or tell people what to do - our job is to connect people up to the best available information.”
South Africa’s Real411 factchecking organisation charts trends and tries to stay one step ahead of misinformation by being part of a weekly listening group of academics, government officials, NGOs and community listeners who track social media and pick up on the latest rumours.
“There are people in the community, talking to grannies, asking ‘what are you hearing?’. It may be ‘oh I’ve heard the Covid vaccine will kill you after two years’. It all feeds into a system so we know what we’re dealing with,” says William Bird, the Director of Media Monitoring Africa that runs Real411.
“We can’t stop all (the conspiracy theories), we just need to make it as difficult as possible. If we keep raising people’s scepticism about what they see on social media, we can get a greater understanding of how destructive some of this misinformation can be.
“The algorithms by and large favour misinformation… it’s much easier to spread things that stoke fear and anxiety than calm, rational explanation of why vaccines do work,” he says.
Social media companies should do more to protect their users, especially in African countries where levels of “misinformation literacy” are low, says Mr Alhassan of GhanaFact. “A lot of people who may be very well educated still believe what they see on WhatsApp videos, they truly believe these things to be true.”
Some videos say facemasks and other PPE coming to Ghana have been laced with coronavirus. Others says that women who take the vaccine will be unable to have children in the future. Many of the videos originate in the United States but are overlaid with commentary in a local language.
As well as publishing its factchecks, GhanaFact staff have started to train local journalists and university students on how to spot falsehoods and verify information. But sometimes it feels like they are swimming against the tide, says Mr Alhassan.
“The social media companies still have a lot to do,” he says. “They don’t seem to realise that this misinformation is having a devastating impact.”