This time last year, the elections in Kenya and the polarising political rhetoric that accompanied the campaigns were months away. The now-popular term “fake news” was also relatively unknown in the Kenyan political context.
And regular fact-checking of public claims did not yet exist.
It is against this backdrop that I started working as Africa Check’s first full-time fact-checker in Kenya. The mission was straightforward: To keep public debate honest.
I thought fact-checkers viewed the world in black or white. But there are nuances, context and the all-important “what-would-be-the-impact-if-this-claim-is-left-unchecked”-question to think about.
Fact-checking is painstaking, but always exhilarating when you finally reach a verdict that is defendable with evidence and expert knowledge.
From the more than 40 fact-checking pieces I delivered from in Kenya, I learned invaluable lessons. Here are my top ten.
Just because it’s official, doesn’t mean it’s a fact
How can it be that a presidential speech, prepared by many presumably highly-qualified hands and minds, end up with inaccuracies?
Right from my very first fact-check of police numbers in Kenya, I found this astounding.
I expected the government would have its numbers right because after all, they have an army of record-keepers and a whole government statistics body crunching the data.
But the numbers were sometimes wrong, misrepresented or outdated and I learned to double-check everything.
The credibility test
While every fact-check is different, the process of compiling it is set and replicable.
I had people giving off-the-record nuggets about closed-door meetings or classified documents. They were often disappointed when I didn’t quote their “evidence”.
In fact-checking, every source of information has to be vetted and its accuracy tested. And it has to be public so that people reading the fact-check can reach the same conclusion by following the same evidence. The International Fact-checking Network’s code of principles – that Africa Check subscribes to – requires such transparency of sources.
The network also requires it of funding. Initially, some critics questioned whose agenda we were serving, but it died down when they learned that Africa Check’s sources of funding aren’t secret.
Fact-checking takes time
When I started out, there wasn’t much in Africa Check’s fact-checking bank for Kenya. Now that a year has passed, we can turn around fact-checks on issues we have checked before much quicker.
Many who asked us to do “live fact-checking” at the beginning did not grasp the kind of legwork required to reach a verdict about a claim. At times, a fact-check would take weeks to put together. (Note: More about this in lesson 5, 9 and 10!)
Talking heads aren’t experts
Finding subject-matter experts to help unpack a claim hasn’t been easy. Some of the garrulous television pundits are just that – talking heads. They were ready to deliver sound-bites and great quotes without really illuminating an issue.
We had to reach university professors with a track-record of research in the particular subject or known think-tanks with hands-on knowledge of a specific issue, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, Tegemeo Institute and the International Budget Partnership.
Sadly, some senior people in universities with wonderful scholarly track-records just didn’t have the time to speak to fact-checkers. Or so they said.
Oh dear, the bureaucracy!
But our fact-check of Kenya’s unemployment rate is still up in the air. Back in May, the statistics bureau promised us its latest report would be available “in a month”. That month turned into months and it’s now more than half a year later.
There are things the bureau just can’t do without an okay from the parent ministry or minister, so I was told. We wait.
Be fair, not ‘balanced’
In fact-checking, you don’t have to “balance” differing views. Fairness is shown by contacting claim-makers to ask for proof, verifying their proof and then returning to them with evidence to either support or discredit the claim.
We aren’t fortune tellers or psychics
The rule is simple: We can’t fact-check the future or beliefs. So, if a politician promises free secondary education, we cannot predict whether it will be fulfilled or not. However, we can set out how much money would be needed to do so.
The power of collaboration
Keeping public debate honest requires many partners. Consumers of information need the facts presented in a simple, coherent and complete manner and in a variety of formats
Africa Check’s weekly slot on the KTN prime-time show #Checkpoint with Yvonne Okwara-Matole helped inform viewers about claims in the major manifestos. We also taught the public how to be smart online and how to interpret opinion polls.
Our weekly podcast with BBC Africa’s Dickens Olewe was another outlet for enhancing debate. I also got to share our work with many local and international media houses – being interviewed at least 14 times in the month running up to the election alone!
The excuses & attacks
As we dig for the facts at Africa Check, we turn over rocks, stones and even pebbles. Not everyone is equally helpful as we do so.
When I called the chief executive of the Kenya Investment Authority for data on foreign direct investment, he asked me to be patient as the authority’s building has not had power for weeks. But the promised response never came.
Then there was the time I called the spokesman for Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga. The question was straightforward: where did Odinga source his quoted price of maize from?
Dennis Onyango responded: “We are not going to do your research for you. We stand by what he said, that the maize is costing KSh4,600 per bag. If you haven’t got it, that is not our problem!” (Note: Read the resulting report here.)
When we fact-checked a speech by labour union leader Wilson Sossion, I had a long conversation with him. He didn’t provide evidence for his claim that 70% of youth in Kenya were unemployed, but kept insisting: “I was right!”
I’ve lost count of the number of times I had to introduce myself, explain what Africa Check does, give examples of our previous work and even after all that, be told: “Call me later, I am in a meeting!” And that would be the last of it.
‘Never give up’
This is one of the most memorable “commandments” we have at Africa Check. You don’t give up when you are ignored and you don’t give up until you find the original footage, document or speech. You don’t give up until a fact-check is complete and you have a credible verdict.
For instance, we attempted to verify the kilometres of roads built during the Kenyatta government’s first term. Every source provided conflicting data: different government agencies as well as the ministry of transport and infrastructure.
The minister referred us to the presidential delivery unit, who referred us to the ministry officials, who again referred us to the minister, who referred us back to the unit. Engineering associations did not come to light either. But trust me, I’m not giving up!
The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government. YALI Voices is a series of podcasts, videos and blogs contributed by members of the YALI Network.