Misinformation, implications, and responsibility: fact-checking on Africa

“What do these statements about Africa have in common? A white farmer is killed every five days in South Africa. Earlier this year Nigerian Islamists Boko Haram burnt 375 Christians alive. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the rape capital of the world. Johannesburg is the world’s biggest man-made forest. Answer: despite being widely accepted, none of them are true.” (“Get your Africa facts right”)

Sorting fact from fiction is particularly difficult when the stories come from afar and are buried in myths previously accepted.  In TOK, we want to develop the constructive “doubt response” (IB TOK Course Companion, 53ff) in face of misinformation.  However, when the false stories neither jar with what we know already (coherence check for truth) nor come with supporting justification in the form of readily checked evidence (correspondence check for truth), then how are we to judge what to accept?  Enter websites dedicated to catching and countering misinformation!  In Africa, a continent often skewed in representations in western media, websites such as Africa Check and BudgIT provide a valuable resource for journalists and the public.

The homepage of Africa Check makes this declaration:

We hold public figures accountable

For democracy to function, public figures need to be held to account for what they say. The claims they make need to be checked, openly and impartially. Africa Check is an independent, non-partisan organisation which assesses claims made in the public arena using journalistic skills and evidence drawn from the latest online tools, readers, public sources and experts, sorting fact from fiction and publishing the results.

Surely, for teachers and students of TOK, such fact-checking services are more than a resource for accurate information.  After all, in TOK we concern ourselves not with particular facts but with the knowledge questions that generate and surround knowledge.  We are concerned with how knowledge is constructed — and consequently, at a general level, with the forces within society that warp information, and thus skew the justifications for knowledge claims.

In TOK, we also point to the implications for accepting particular knowledge claims and perspectives:  what we accept has consequences for how we think and act. For instance, misinformation spread within and about Africa has in the past seriously set back attempts to eradicate polio in Africa and more recently hampered public compliance with health warnings over ebola.

I highly recommend the following article by Monica Mark in the Guardian:  “Get your Africa facts right: websites seek to stem flow of misinformation”.  In TOK, we could seriously argue that we have that responsibility: to try, as best we can, to get our facts right.

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