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Int’l Fact-Checking Day: How public figures react to fact-checks in Nigeria and why we should bother

FACT-CHECKING no doubt has become an important area of journalism globally and is increasingly taking centre stage across many newsrooms.

In Nigeria, not only are major news agencies releasing fact-checks on a regular basis, establishing fact-check desks and empowering their reporters with advanced tools for research and verification, organisations, such as Africa Check and Dubawa, have been set up solely for the purpose of combating information disorder.

And it is not a one-way street. It has also been observed that Nigerian readers generally take a special interest in finding out if claims made by public figures or circulated widely on the Internet are true. As the public grow more sceptical, politicians also become more thoughtful in what statements they make.

We seize the occasion of the International Fact-Checking Day, celebrated every 2nd of April since 2017, to go over our fact-check reports in the past year and see how the people scrutinised reacted to being called out.

The good

In August, the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers and chief press secretary, Sarah Sanders, apologised for ‘miscommunication’ at a press briefing, following fact-checks by various media organisations. However, this hardly happens elsewhere, especially Nigeria. It is rare for Nigerian public figures and politicians to openly admit they were mistaken, and apologise over inaccurate claims.

What we have are instances where individuals and institutions have deleted public statements, claims, and data, after their attention has been called to their untruthfulness. In April 2018, it was discovered that the National Bureau of Statistics, NBS, had pulled down inaccurate education-related statistics from their website after a fact-check by The ICIR published the previous month, without a public apology.

The figures, which originated from the Federal Ministry of Education as part of the third edition of Nigeria Digest of Education Statistics, had wrongfully claimed enrolment in public and private early childhood education dropped between 2015 and 2016.

Likewise, in December, then vice presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, Peter Obi, had deleted his tweet containing false figures about the country’s foreign direct investment.

“In 2015, we generated $41 billion in Foreign Direct Investment, but now we attracted only $12 billion last year,” he wrote, repeating a claim made at the vice presidential debate hours earlier.

“Even our stock market has lost over N2 trillion in one year. You can’t shut down your shop and be chasing criminals.”

After it was fact-checked, including by media aide to the president, Tolu Ogunlesi, who replied the tweet, Obi pulled down the post and released a new claim, but he did not apologise for misinforming Nigerians.

Obi has also been observed to adjust his claims following fact-checks. During the vice presidential debate organised by the Nigeria Elections Debate Group (NEDG) in December, the former Anambra State governor had stated that Nigeria’s GDP per capita is “under $1,900” as against $2,500 in 2015; but later adjusted this to “below $2000”.

The bad

It is not in all cases statistical reports are retracted for adjustment or where claims made are indirectly admitted as false through their deletion or alteration.

In February, for instance, in the build-up to the general elections, a video was circulated by many, including Paul Ibe, media adviser to former vice president Atiku Abubakar, and Reno Omokri, former aide of ex-president Goodluck Jonathan.

It showed that Buhari was supposedly booed during his campaign rally in Lagos; but an examination of the facts by CrossCheck Nigeria established it as doctored and misleading. In spite of this and even though Ibe was challenged by a reporter as to the truthfulness of his claim, tweets by both personalities—now with over 82,500 views, are still available on the Internet. They left the false information unadjusted.

Another example is a claim shared on Twitter by Lauretta Onochie, media aide to the president, where she said Atiku Abubakar distributed cash and food at his rally that took place in Sokoto State in December. The claim was discovered to be false as the attached picture had been uploaded to the Internet since February 2017 under very different contexts.

This was pointed to her through fact-checks and by numerous Twitter users in the comment section, but the claim has remained untouched. The same goes for Onochie’s claim that over 12 million jobs have been created in the rice production industry under the present administration, for which there is no shred of evidence.

Recent tweets claiming President Muhammadu Buhari budgeted N79 million on haircut expenses for 2019 are also still accessible online, despite a report confirming them to be false.

The ugly

The fact-checking journey in the past few months has not been all smooth and steady. There have been ugly and awkward incidents as well, especially involving a back-and-forth between reporters and some individuals who were fact-checked.

In November, Oby Ezekwesili, former education minister and 2009 presidential candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), stated, “From the year 2000 till today – that is a period of 18 years – the only time that the number of Out-Of-School children in this country reduced was when I was education minister.”

According to findings by The ICIR, this claim is inaccurate: “Based on the data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics … Nigeria recorded a steady decrease in the percentage of out-of-school children from the year 2000 to 2007. The percentage, however, shot up from 28.4 per cent in 2007 to 35.1 per cent in 2008. But it reduced to 34 per cent in 2009 and 2010.”

Two days after, a response finally came authored by Ozioma Ubabukoh, senior media consultant for Ezekwesili’s presidential campaign, which basically capitalised on the difference between “numbers of out-of-school children” and “percentage of out-of-school-children”.

While calling the news agency wrong-headed and the fact-check “terrible … journalism at its worst”, the six-paragraphed statement failed to mention what authoritative records Ezekwesili relied on in making her claim.

In December, a similar episode transpired involving Tope Fasua, 2019 presidential candidate of the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP). He had claimed that “90 million people are food poor in this country”, a claim that was found to contradict figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). According to FAO, 21.5 million Nigerians suffer from undernourishment and 46.1 million have severe food insecurity.

The ANRP presidential candidate took to the Centre’s Facebook page to show his displeasure and argue that his statistics is correct.

“What kind of nasty reporting are you guys doing at ICIR?” he’d asked. “If you want to play James Bond, better get your fact right. According to worldpoverty.io, we have 89m people EXTREMELY POOR. What is extremely poor if not food poor? Dudes, get your act right if you want to go to town rubbishing people.”

Checks showed, however, that food poverty cannot be equated to extreme or absolute poverty in this manner.

Again, in March, Fasua, arguing in favour of a multi-party political system, wrote that there are 89 parties in the United States, 1600 in India, 40 in the United Kingdom, and 68 in South Africa. Gazettes and websites belonging to the electoral commissions in these countries, however, declared the true figures to be 45, 2099, 405, and 599 respectively.

After this fact-check was published, Fasua replied on Twitter to say he thinks the newspaper is “run by neophytes” and has a style that is “really immature and preposterous”. He went on to provide his sources, that included four links: two to Wikipedia articles that contain a list of parties in the US and South Africa, one to a RationalWiki article, and the last to a 2015 report by Times of India.

“I rounded off India to 1600 because they are too many. Actually, it’s growing daily and around 1866 now,” he added, still citing the 2015 figure that has since been updated to over 2000.

The implications

Fact-check experts in Nigeria say it is of big concern that public officials are often undisturbed when their claims are proven to be untrue and make no moves to make amends. Akintunde Babatunde, Dubawa’s lead researcher and programme officer with the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, said the country’s bad value system, allowing people to get away with atrocities, is to blame for this trend.

He also said, on most occasions, politicians are not bothered by fact-checks because they intentionally throw out misleading claims to promote an agenda.

On the other hand, Babatunde cited Obi’s tweet deletion to show that public figures are conscious of getting fact-checked.

“Another instance was when the Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh, said Nigeria stopped importing rice from Thailand and then it led to several rice mills collapsing in the country,” he added. “When we did the fact-check, he later apologised at the Federal Executive Council meeting, and said he was so sorry. That apology never made the news, but we got the feedback.”

Because fact-checks are still new in the country and politicians often got away easily with stating fake figures, they should not be expected to adapt immediately, he explained. “So I think all hope is not lost. We will continue to release our fact-checks and I think, at the end of the day, we will have a saner clime.”

Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), an Abuja-based policy advocacy and research organisation, observed that government agencies and officials respond to the centre’s reports either positively or negatively, depending on if their interests are promoted.

“When it favours them, they are always quick to acknowledge it, share it, publicise it. But when it doesn’t, they always rebut it and make us look as if we are just peddling fake news ourselves,” she told The ICIR.

“I will use the Buharimeter as an example. When we did the first Anchor Borrowers Programme report, it was the ministry of agriculture that was busy tweeting it. By the time we did the second one and we exposed the rot in the programme, they called us fake news and accused us of trying to bring down the government of the day.”

Hassan predicts that, rather than become more open-minded to fact-checks, the government is more likely to set its own pseudo fact-checking organisations that will report in their favour; and then the burden would be to ensure there is professionalism, objectivity, and quality in all the reports.

Generally, the CDD director is positive about how fact-checks are received in Nigeria. “The kick is that accountability is on the rise, and everybody is watching, everybody is monitoring, to see that they are not fact-checked wrongly,” she noted approvingly.

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