In Ghana, presidential and parliamentary elections are the height of all political activities. The electioneering period is characterized by intensive media campaigns and debates, heated political discussions on both mainstream and social media and a litany of unending political activities that pervade all spheres of the everyday life.
Accompanying these intense media campaigns and debates is the spread of fake news. While the spread of fake news (misinformation and disinformation) is not new in Ghana’s media space, the information disorder spikes during electioneering periods. In the previous elections in 2016, out of 98 electoral campaign claims made by politicians and affiliates of political parties that Fact-Check Ghana verified, more than half were noted to be completely false, half-truths, or misleading.
The Media Landscape Ahead of the Elections 2020
According to data from Ghana’s frequency allocation agency, National Communication Authority, the number of radio and television stations in 2020 has cumulatively increased by at least 38% since the last elections in 2016. Specifically, radio stations had increased from 481 to 575; TV stations from 93 to 146. This meant that ahead of the 2020 general elections, the media landscape was more pluralised than in the previous elections.
Despite the pluralisation of the media landscape, many of these media outlets are owned by politicians. According to Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Media Ownership Monitor of Ghana, a third of media organisations have an owner with political affiliations. This meant that the likelihood of a subjective and bias reporting of the elections, which would entrench the already polarised political landscape, was very high.
Further, underlining the challenge of subjective reporting and spreading of inaccurate information about the election was the findings of the MFWA monitoring of the landscape indicated a free-falling professional standard and a very abusive airwaves, mainly perpetrated by supposed elite politicians and pro-partisan media outlets.
Ahead of the elections, Internet penetration had increased from below 28% in 2016 to 48% in 2020. It meant a lot more Ghanaians were connected to the internet, increasing citizen’s ability to access, create and disseminate information as well as improving freedom of expression.
However, while 41% of Ghanaians consume their daily information from social media and the internet, according to most recent Afrobarometer report, 86% say social media makes people more likely to believe in false information.
The development in the media landscape had provided a fertile ground that would facilitate the spread of fake news that could dent the credibility and reduce public trust in the elections, and as well trigger turmoil in an already tensed political atmosphere. The situation demanded an immediate intervention.
Fact-Check Ghana’s Intervention
Fact-Check Ghana beefed up its team to include more researchers, fact-checkers, data journalists, and media monitors. Some team members monitored WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the mostly used social media platforms in Ghana. Others monitored pro-partisan radio stations who had been noted to have the penchant of misreporting and slanting news report towards their political interest.
The team also deployed tracking and verification software like Facebook’s Crowd Tangle, Forensically and Reverse Image Search apps to enable spotting and fact-checking claims on social media. Links were also publicised that allowed individuals to submit viral claims on the elections to Fact-check Ghana for verification.
Fact-Check Ghana partnered with the Coalition for Domestic Election Observers (CODEO), an independent and non-partisan network of civil society groups, faith-based organizations and professional bodies that observe Ghanaian elections. CODEO had dispatched 4,400 non-partisan observers to monitor all the 38, 622 polling stations where the elections were happening on December 7. The observers, as part of their monitoring work, acted as on-field fact-checkers who verified claims that Fact-Check Ghana had picked on various online and offline platforms that were being followed.
Fact-Check Ghana also collaborated with the Ghana Police Service who dedicated officers at their media centre to offer information to the team whenever there were claims of violent incidents and disruptions at the polling stations. These partnerships equipped the Fact-Checking team with the requisite support to debunk several forms of misinformation, disinformation and even mal-information spreading on the media and political spaces, online and offline in real time.
Claims Fact-Checked Before, During and After Election Day
From December 5 to 9, about 30 claims of fake news items made up of information with false context, misleading, manipulated, impostor and fabricated content were fact-checked. Key amongst them is this video that emerged on WhatsApp and Facebook purporting that some officers of the Ghana Police Service had been dispatched to intimidate and harass citizens residing in some areas noted to be the stronghold of the leading opposition party, National Democratic Congress (NDC), which turned out false after thorough analysis.
The team also countered a video showing police officers retrieving some thumb printed ballot papers. Following Fact-check Ghana’s verification, it became clear that even though the video was not manipulated, it bore a false context as it was 2013 video that did not relate to the December 7 polls.
One claim that quickly gained traction on some of the pro-partisan radio stations and social media on voting day (December 7) was that rubbing an alcohol-based hand sanitiser, which was being administered at polling stations as a measure of controlling the spread of COVID-19, before one cast a vote would make the thumbprint on the ballot paper vanish. Fact-check Ghana verified the claim as Completely False and called on the general public to disregard.
When voting ended on December 7, myriads of misleading claims surfaced on social media including fake election results, and fabricated screenshots suggesting that international media platforms like BBC and CNN had called the election for one candidate. Fact-Check subjected several of such claims to verification and debunked them as fake.
The fact-checked reports that were produced were shared across the various social media platforms reaching about 300, 000 citizens.
In the end, Fact-check Ghana contributed to combating fake news on the internet that could have marred the peaceful 2020 elections.