Peter Cunliffe-Jones: Fact, Fiction & Africa Check

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 30 November 2019

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Created by Jason Hudson

Peter Cunliffe Jones’s fellowship ran from 2016-19, and his work on scaling the first independent fact-checking organisation in Africa has been enormously successful.

Firstly, he has grown Africa Check from a skeleton team in Johannesburg to becoming a leader in the field, operating directly in four different countries, supporting new fact-checking organizations in 14 other countries and training thousands of journalists in the practice all over Africa. He has also been a key figure in establishing the International Fact-Checking Network as a recognised institution with global standards, followed today by 78 organisations worldwide, and his work has helped the fact-checking movement take significant steps forward.

We caught up with Peter to discuss his story, the growth of Africa Check and the global fact-checking network, and the outcomes and impacts of his hugely successful fellowship.

“The Foundation provided booster rockets to our development. The question is, can you keep going when they fall off, or will you tumble back to Earth? I think… I think… we’re in orbit.” - Peter Cunliffe-Jones

The problem: Facts vs Fiction

When you receive reliable and tested nutritional advice, you can make healthy dietary choices. By verifying political claims, you gain a better idea of where to place your ‘x’ at the ballot box. Accurate information improves your life, is beneficial for your health, and enables society to be more democratic.

The flipside is also true. If your received information is corrupt - either by design or mistake - you are only left with faith, guesswork and luck to make the big calls in your daily life. You will recognise the slivers of truth at the heart of false claims from your lived experiences, and you will believe them. Misleading statements from politicians, miracle cures sold by quacks, and incorrect advice from those you trust become all the more persuasive.

The facts matter. And independent fact-checkers are critical to ensure we have access to them, especially in these contemporary times when rumours, smears and untruths can be spread to millions online within hours. Fact-checking organisations provide a touchstone from where we can all make more informed decisions and better analysis of claims made in the public arena.

Yet even in developed countries where fact-checking is an established part of the media makeup, fact-checkers cannot resolve every issue. Political chaos in Trump’s America and Brexit in a dis-United Kingdom show that tackling mis- and disinformation is an ongoing, resource-heavy struggle. In complex, developing parts of the world - where challenging power and investigating social issues is often hard, and sometimes dangerous - the problems are considerably worse.

Until Peter established Africa Check, many sceptics felt introducing independent fact-checking to this complicated and often fractious continent wasn’t possible. Africa’s vast landmass of ethnic diversity and religious complexity is also host to unchecked media bias and limited freedom of information. Where official data is accessible, it is often unreliable and riddled with holes. This was a significant challenge.

The fellow: Peter Cunliffe-Jones

Peter is a journalist by trade, working for 25 years with the Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency. He has seen a lot, covering war in the Balkans, and overseeing coverage of 26 countries in Asia-Pacific. But Africa has been the primary focus of most of his career and a place of interest for most of his life.

Working in the continent allowed Peter to explore ancestral ties. “My grandfather was a colonial official in Nigeria,” he explains. “He was quite senior, and ended up as acting governor and taking part in the negotiations for independence.

“I was there at the end of military rule and wrote a book about it. I reflected on my grandfather’s time and his part in how the way the British had set Nigeria up in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, ended up leading to collapse and civil war. Also, I looked at the questions of why Nigeria is as it is now. It was called My Nigeria. It’s a terrible title. I wanted to call it The King Can Do No Wrong but could not persuade the publishers.”

The title he wanted is drawn from tragedy. Peter was living in Lagos when over a thousand people - many of whom were children - drowned in canals while fleeing an explosion in a major military armoury. Top officials in the military had been warned that the munitions store in the middle of a massive city was badly maintained but ignored the warnings and the deaths were the result.

“I was shaking angry,” says Peter. “I remember saying that somebody should be prosecuted. My Nigerian colleague replied with a Yoruba saying: ‘The King can do no wrong.’

“It describes the total rejection of accountability and I felt that was the real problem with the country: the King can do no wrong while thousands of people die. It pushed me to shift from thinking about news reporting to accountability journalism.”

More interest in the harmful results of unaccountability and misinformation came that same year, during the World Health Organisation and UNICEF’s polio vaccination campaign. Huge efforts were made to reduce incidence of the disease around the world, and in many regions it worked. Not everywhere, however. Polio remained endemic throughout several Muslim-majority areas in northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and northern Nigeria and started a polio vaccination campaign in all four areas simultaneously.

“It was a rumour started in the Nigerian mosques,” Peter says. “They believed it was an anti-Muslim exercise by the West - that the vaccine used contained an anti-fertility agent and was designed to reduce the world’s Muslim population - and the governor of the most prominent northern city in Nigeria told people not to take the vaccine. They banned it.

“Over the next few years there was a surge of cases because of this false claim about polio vaccines spread by the government. The media reported “‘Don’t take vaccine,’ says Government” rather than “Government spreads shameless false claim.” It had real world consequences. There are thousands of people today who suffer the effects of polio because the vaccine was banned.

“So, for me, this has never been about catching someone out and telling them they are wrong. And it’s not just about politics. It’s about understanding that certain types of misinformation will ruin people’s lives and tackling it.”

Unveiling Africa Check

After a stint working as AFP’s chief editor in Asia, Peter returned to Africa to work with the agency’s media foundation. With him came a new idea he pitched to AFP and the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand. He aimed to set up a nonprofit project to tackle the spread of misinformation and promote accuracy in public debate - the first independent fact-checking organisation in Africa.

“I knew if this was going to exist it had to be credible,” says Peter. “I asked AFP to pay my salary, but wanted to make sure it would be completely independent - and we had to be careful of the colonialism issues. It could not be a French or British organisation. It had to be African. They agreed to pay me, surprisingly, but agreed all other costs would have to come from philanthropic donors. The initial funding was agreed in 2012, and we launched Africa Check in Johannesburg that October.”

Modelled partly on existing fact-checking organisations in Europe and the United States, but working with African journalists to African needs, the idea was to create a range of reports, assistance and advice for a fact-checking audience, and a collection of tools and databases to help readers and journalists. Just over a year later, Peter won funding from the Omidyar Network, who also asked him to attend an event in Johannesburg.

“I think they wanted proof I knew what to do with the money,” he laughs. “But at this event, I got to meet (former Fellow) Gavin Weale,” Peter explains. “He told me my project was ‘very Shuttleworth.’ I looked into it, but felt it wasn’t the right time. Soon after, I learned AFP were having some financial problems. It became clear that the leadership was going to close down the foundation that was paying my salary, so, perhaps sooner than I originally intended, I applied to the Shuttleworth Foundation in 2015.”

Joining the Foundation

Peter’s fellowship began in March 2016, and Africa Check represented a new theme for the Foundation. It was, however, an area with significant links to much of the work we have supported in the past. Universal literacy is pointless if all you have to read is alarming headlines that play on emotions and incite anger. Spurious health claims hold back science and cost lives. Societal progress slows when access to facts and knowledge is limited.

In today’s increasingly unequal world and its polarised political climates, we need nonpartisan, transparent fact-checking more than ever. Peter had the credentials and potential to see his vision become a reality, and he was a perfect fit for the fellowship. And, while introducing the Foundation to fact-checking for the first time, he was also experiencing something new in our commitment to following an open philosophy.

“I wasn’t really aware of it,” he explains. “I support the principles, but until I joined the fellowship, I never really thought long and hard about open. I was doing all sorts of other things that were occupying my world.

“But at heart, I’m a reporter and still tell people I’m a journalist. Once a journalist always a journalist. I’ve always had it in mind that what I do is freely available, or as freely available as it can be. And you try to broadcast what you do to as many people as possible.

“So my ‘thing’ was never a frustration at the closed nature of organisations. I think my motivation has been to build a system and tackle a problem around misinformation in an open way. But open in order to create a broad-based, sustainable culture and structure that tackles misinformation over the continent. I guess some see open as almost religious; I see it as a practical tool.”

The fellowship years

When Peter first became a fellow in 2016, Africa Check was still very much in its embryonic stages. Just three people fact-checked from a small Johannesburg office in South Africa and a one-person operation in Senegal.

By the end of his three years, Africa Check had established offices in four countries with a 30-person team, and was supporting a network of new and emerging, independent fact-checking organisations working in 14 more countries. The awards it runs receive entries every year from hundreds of journalists in more than 20 countries There is also a commercial unit that offers training and research opportunities to journalists across the continent. A clever growth strategy had paid off.

“My approach was to use the funds to build up a scalable structure,” says Peter. “It was a gamble, but we had to have an effect and show impact to bring in other funds, so a large part of it was to focus on getting attention. If we only planned to work in one little corner rather than the continent, I think interest and money would have been hard to come by.

“The fellowship has enabled this. You can look at our funding, and it inches up slowly and then leaps in 2016. Not to get too much into cliches, but the Foundation provided booster rockets to our development. The question is, can you keep going when they fall off, or will you tumble back to Earth? I think… I think… we’re in orbit.

“Last year Shuttleworth was more than a quarter of our funding, this year about 15 per cent, and next year it’s zero. We’ve tried to structure the grants we had from other organisations to take up the slack, frontloading some and reloading others.”

“In the first two years of the fellowship, I built up the organisation and ended up with offices in four countries. But it isn’t enough. There needs to be fact-checking in Zimbabwe and Botswana and the DRC.

“We wanted to build and support a network of organisations that are doing fact-checking all around the continent,” he continues. “So we based a large part of the third fellowship year bringing together a number of these organisations. We asked if they would be interested in working in this field and then built them into the network.

“Now, there are close to 20 organisations fact-checking in Africa, and we’ve trained over 2,000 journalists in the last couple of years. There is fact-checking taking place in newsrooms, organisations and units in other countries.”

The future of fact-checking

As Peter says, this is not all about politics. Neither is it about imposing a fact-checking bureaucracy on citizens. It’s about improving lives and helping people make better decisions about their everyday lives. To ensure this, Africa Check has identified from all angles and reaches out to all people, organisations and institutions that are spreading socially harmful information. It’s a top-down, bottom-up, side-to-side and peer-to-peer approach by necessity.

The next step is for Africa Check to ensure its messages ripple out and reach all sectors of African society. It has already taken its mission to social media, and timely work with Facebook and WhatsApp is helping stem the vast flows of mis- and disinformation reaching citizens online.

“We have a partnership with Facebook,” he explains. “Our fact-checkers look at the queue in the backend of the platform, and they see what they think are the most egregious examples of misinformation that could cause social harm.

“We post a short article saying it’s wrong, and that article is attached to the misinformation. According to Facebook, the distribution of what we’ve labelled as wrong is reduced by 80 per cent.

“Secondly, attached to it - or sitting underneath it - is the related article saying it is misinformation. Thirdly, if you share it, you get an email or popup on your Facebook page with a message saying this is wrong. Working on that specific platform, we can get the right information in front of the right people.”

But the most powerful thing that convinces you to make irrational health choices is not that you heard it on the radio, saw it on TV or read it on a social media post. It’s that you were given misinformation by your brother, your aunt, or the friend you prop up the bar with after work. This is particularly prevalent in places where the concept of community is strong. And it’s these areas where facts desperately need to reach to improve health outcomes and save lives.

There is also substantial evidence suggesting that motivated reasoning and cognitive bias play a role in whether or not an individual believes/disbelieves a piece of information. Given the dispersed nature of our current information system - including the traditional superstitions and myths of traditional communities - it can be incredibly difficult to ensure people exposed to untruths eventually get the real facts.

“We have a basic plan for this and will be trialling this first in Nigeria,” says Peter. “The idea is to work with all the real stakeholder organisations in the field including the Nigerian Medical Association, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, the health ministry, but also others like community-based health groups and the media. We will be convening meetings once every quarter and give them examples of the 40 or 50 of the most damaging health misinformation we’ve found in circulation.

“These organisations will take it back to their communities, translate our reports into the language that works best for them and take the messages out to the community. If they can’t do it online because most of their communities aren’t there, there may be street theatre presentations explaining misinformation, for example. The Nigerian Medical Association will receive a short PDF that will go up on the walls of doctor’s surgeries across the country - thousands of them. And then we can get the Nigerian Health Ministry to put out a statement that a particular claim is wrong. This way, you spread a consistently reinforced message.”

There is another important aspect of Africa Check’s future that addresses one of Peter’s primary concerns from the very beginning. Seven years after launching the organisation, he stepped down as executive director in May 2019.

“It was always my ambition to make it an African-run organisation,” he explains. “So part of the funding from Shuttleworth went towards hiring a deputy - Noko Makgato - who could be tested and eventually take over. And that has now happened. We got in a new entirely African board and management structure. It is indeed an entirely 100% African-run organisation.”

Peter has also stepped down from the advisory board of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), a grouping of more than 78 fact-checking programmes working to enhance the field’s professional ethics. This enabled him to take up a senior advisor role at the organisation to review and strengthen its Code of Principles. He has been a key figure in bringing these organisations to IFCN while encouraging them to adhere to global standards and move towards more transparency. Now, his work will refine the code so it improves the field further and works better in different contexts around the world.

And in partnership with a Zimbabwean colleague, he has a new role at the University of Westminster, running a new programme of eight-week residential fellowships starting in 2020 on “freedom & trust in media” in Africa. The idea is to bring people - media regulators, journalists, and media watchdog NGOs from 11 countries - to the UK and provoke debate about the boundaries of media freedom and mechanisms of trust in media. The programme is linked to other programmes run in South Asia, Europe and elsewhere.

“I’ve always been deeply interested in Africa,” says Peter. “But we live in highly volatile times everywhere in the world. Fact-checking and honest debate is needed in every country and every continent.”

Final Reflections

From the Foundation’s perspective, Peter’s fellowship has been phenomenally successful. Africa Check has made a significant difference to the debate around health, science, politics and journalism, not just over the continent, but all over the world. And Peter has developed an exceptional understanding of where the next frontiers for fact-checking lie, and positioned Africa Check in an ideal place to confront them.

Furthermore, he has wholeheartedly embraced the philosophy and spirit of the Foundation. Peter has implemented openness in his organisation and actively instilled it at the core of the IFCN. He has been an ideal fellow, a rapid learner, and contributed thoughtfully to the Shuttleworth community. Although, coming from a different world to many others in the fellowship, he is happy to admit it took a little while.

“I remember after my first Gathering,” he recalls. “Karien Bezuidenhout said she saw I was determined to do well and follow along with the procedures. But I was clearly thinking ‘what the hell have I walked into!’ And that’s not wrong, really.

“I’m not a technologist. I’m not a developer. I started my journalism on a typewriter and literally ‘cut and paste’ my paragraphs with scissors and glue. A lot of the conversations I heard at the first Gathering sounded like everyone was speaking Greek and, quite honestly, I didn’t understand why I was there.

“But after three years, I do think I understand. The social problems the Shuttleworth Foundation is trying to resolve and the big focus on education and public health - I think we fit within that.

“It took me a while to work out. But one day, somebody asked me what the Shuttleworth Foundation is, and I finally had an answer. I told them it is an organisation that aims to develop people who can lead, develop and enable social change. I’m always super wary of talking about things being unique. But I think the intentions of the Foundation, and the focus on you as an individual, do indeed make it unique.

“When I announced to the Africa Check team I was stepping down from my current role, I made a speech. It was a traditional Oscars-style thing - thanking everyone. I said we couldn’t have done any of this without the partnerships we had. I truly was grateful for all the partnerships but a lot of those relationships were really just professional ones for me, personally, Shuttleworth was different and I explained ‘my love and respect for the Shuttleworth Foundation.’

“And I meant it. I’m very grateful - hugely - for all the funding we’ve had from other organisations. But I don’t think I’ve ever told any that I love them.”

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