We’ve all seen them. The dangerous fake claims that drinking bleach can protect you from Coronavirus, that Ivermectin, a pet dewormer, can cure Covid or that the vaccine is some grand ploy to get us all injected with some chip to track us.
They pop up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and they’re forwarded to you by random relatives on WhatsApp, Telegram, etc. And they tend to spread like wildfire, with most people not bothering to check if any of it is even true.
The thing is, though, how do you even check if a viral health claim is true?
That’s where professional fact-checkers come in. And professional fact-checkers are also the backbone of Viral Facts Africa, a fantastic campaign targeting health misinformation on the African continent.
It’s a campaign led by the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA), bringing together various trusted health bodies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF etc. It kicked off in March 2021 as a response to the misinformation about Covid-19 popping up online.
The idea behind Viral Facts Africa is to check claims and then debunk myths and disseminate the correct information. Part of that is done via articles written by fact-checkers. But one of the main ways Viral Facts Africa communicates complicated information and makes it more easily digestible is via social media content: videos, images, etc., that have the same chance of spreading as the myths they’re helping debunk.
Behind Viral Facts Africa’s media content is Fathm, a media consultancy and agency based in the south of England. I had a long chat with Tom Trewinnard, one of Fathm’s two co-founders, to find out more about the Viral Facts Africa campaign and misinformation campaigns in general. I learned a lot of interesting things that I now want to share with you all.
Founder & COO, Fathm
Fathm is a consultancy and news lab. The other founder and I are both journalists and have worked with fact-checkers on a number of big misinformation campaigns, usually around elections.
Viral Facts Africa is the public face of the Africa Infomedic Response Alliance (AIRA), a network of trusted public health institutions and fact checkers working to make scientific, fact-based health information accessible and shareable on social media to combat misinformation.
The biggest challenge of misinformation is that it’s too big for any one organisation to address. So we advised creating a collaborative structure that encompassed both other health agencies, such as UNICEF Africa, the CDC, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, but also local fact-checkers in Africa.
We suggested creating a brand that was basically designed to produce compelling and shareable content for social media based on fact-checks and based on the input of WHO experts.
Our goal is to identify viral misinformation and debunk it. Ideally, we want to identify misinformation before it can spread. We often see what we call “information gaps”. These are questions or fears that people have. We can listen to them through different social media platforms and try to inject some authoritative fact-based information into the conversation with the goal of limiting the space that misinformation has to spread.
We’re also trying to raise people’s awareness of how misinformation works and what they can do to stop the spread of it. There’s a UN “Verified” campaign that we work with, which is focused on “pause, take care before you share”. Don’t just do that immediate, very easy thing that social networks push you to do, which is to hit share right away. Instead, pause and check. Is this something that’s making you feel angry or afraid? We know that misinformation often plays on emotions.
There are two ways for us to learn about misinformation, passive and active. A lot of the big UN agencies have started what they call social listening exercises. There are tools that let you search public social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, based on keywords. You can see spikes in people talking about vaccine side effects, or vaccines and fertility, etc.
WhatsApp is much more challenging because it’s end-to-end encrypted. So we rely on fact-checkers who have what they call “tip lines” that people can send questions to, questions such as “I have seen this in a WhatsApp group? Is it real or false?”
And then, the fact-checkers will build a database around that. We also have various other open channels where people can send us their questions, for example, on Twitter.
Initially, we got a lot of questions about new variants: Do they have new symptoms? What’s the deal with alcohol and vaccines? Can I take painkillers when I get the vaccine? And those questions, interestingly, often lined up with the things that we were seeing through social media monitoring as well.
So, how does the process work?
We get all the requests, which could come from the audience, the social listening team, one of the AIRA partners, or a fact-checker. And then, we have a prioritisation process where we look at the level of risk of each topic. How timely is it? And is it something that’s really urgent?
In March, for example, when the European nations paused their AstraZeneca rollout, we moved really quickly to try and provide a transparent and calm message around that for Africa because AstraZeneca is foundational to the vaccine rollout plan in Africa.
Or there’ll be a meme that goes viral on Facebook. The fact-checkers will investigate and debunk it, but they’ll produce an article that is data-rich and long and which will struggle to reach the same level of visibility as the misinformation that’s being debunked.
We translate fact-based health information into a 30-second video to make it accessible for young African audiences who share a lot of stuff on social networks and private messaging apps like WhatsApp but want engaging, visual and compelling content.
In general, we aim to produce at least five information products per week, sometimes more. The videos themselves have been viewed over 100 million times since January.
How do you disseminate the content you produce?
We deliberately opted to give people full access to our content hub to download our content and post it natively rather than having them reshare content from our accounts.
We’re also not actively directing people to our website. We want them to go straight to social channels and see what we’re doing there because we’re extremely active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. So rather than us building a full-service news website, it’s much better for us just to put the content that we’ve worked on front and centre and push people towards our social channels where they can stay up to date with the latest things that we’re working on.
The social wall plays an important role because one risk of this kind of work is that people can take our logo and use it to make their own Viral Facts video. So if you’re not sure a video is genuine, the social wall is the place to go if you want to see what Viral Facts have actually produced. It’s like an anthology.
Walls.io is light-touch for us. We occasionally do a bit of moderation. And we’ll use different Walls.io features to highlight pieces of content or, if things are getting duplicative, we might pull things out. All of that is super easy.
We’re a lean operation, and the value that we can bring is identifying people’s questions, producing content, just getting it out there. So if we then have to spend extra hours every day just putting content on our website, that’s a big burden.
And it’s not easy to do in an elegant way. I’ve worked on similar things where we’ve done that, and it creates a lot of work and, frankly, just does not look as good. We looked at different options, and Walls.io seemed like the most stable and user-friendly way of doing that. We’re really happy with the tool.
Africa is a huge continent, with many different nations, languages and cultures. How do you target a campaign in that situation?
There’s a wonderful wealth of diversity in Africa, and anything that seeks to operate at a reasonable level is going to be limited in terms of how it resonates. But, from our listening tools, we can understand specific narratives or specific information gaps in different countries. And we’ve got a decentralised distribution network. So we, as Viral Facts, have a Facebook page and Instagram account, and we’ll publish our content there, but only a tiny fraction of the reach of our work happens there.
Much more happens when AIRA partners in Kenya pick up a video and publish it to their audiences. We’re producing content related to specific narratives and then helping the people who are plugged into those communities share it. There are a lot of doctors and health workers who have their own audiences and are kind of micro-influencers. We’re trying to engage them more and give them the tools and information products they need to make their cases in their communities.
Africa has been and still is a mobile-first (if not mobile-only) continent. How does that affect your work?
The vast majority of young African audiences will be on mobile. So a lot of viral facts content is square videos or just still images that are less data-heavy so that they can be shared more easily via WhatsApp. Because the cost of downloading videos can be high, we try to also think about the data cost of what we’re doing.
There are interesting similarities and differences. One thing we’ve seen that we weren’t necessarily expecting is that there’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation coming, particularly from the US, but also from France and a little bit from the UK, that ends up being shared and spread in Africa. Some of that feels deliberate. For example, people who are in the anti-vaccine movement will use Africa as a kind of weapon. They’ll talk about Africa, and those conversations and that content then end up being shared in Africa.
But a lot of themes are also similar. What are the origins of the virus? What are the symptoms? And then a lot about vaccines: Are vaccines safe? What are vaccine side effects? Do the vaccines contain microchips? All of all the things that we’ve seen elsewhere also crop up in Africa.
I believe the key to Viral Facts Africa’s success is that it combats misinformation in the same place where it happens. The campaign uses the same channels that the myth spreaders use and creates content types that attract the same amount of attention as the myths.
Rather than relying on long-read articles to debunk myths, which can often be perceived as “boring” and hard to digest by the general public, Viral Facts Africa produces short-form videos that are designed to work well on social media channels and require only 30 seconds of attention.
It’s said that you can’t fight fire with fire, but that seems to work really well in this case. The content debunking the misinformation spreads the same way as the original myths, which means it has a much higher chance of reaching those same people and getting through to them with valuable, reliable health information.
The social wall is another protection against misinformation. It would be easy enough for dishonest actors to create fake videos and slap the Viral Facts Africa logo onto it — an easy way to spread more misinformation.
But how do you prove the authenticity of social media content?
By putting all Viral Facts Africa-produced content on the social wall, Fathm provides everyone with an easy way to double-check if Viral Facts Africa-branded content they have seen online is genuine and has actually come from Viral Facts Africa.
Takeaway: Content form matters
If you’re trying to communicate potentially complicated, science-led information, such as health topics, it’s essential to make the information as easily available as possible.
What you’re up against is highly sensationalised misinformation that is built on creating fear and panic within the consumer. The best way to combat that is with equally placative content that packages real science from reliable sources.
Viral Facts Africa takes the content created by fact-checkers and translates their, often long, articles into easily digestible social media content.
For example, here we see Viral Facts Africa sharing one of their social media videos in a tweet. But in reply to that tweet, they also shared a link to the original article on DUBAWA, Nigeria’s first indigenous independent verification and fact-checking project. People get all the information they need from the video but if they want to know more, they can always go and read the whole article.
Good content is not just easier to understand; it’s also more shareable.
Here’s what seems to be working for Viral Facts Africa:
- Visual content
A great example for all three is this video, which aims to stop the spread of misinformation via WhatsApp. It’s visually appealing and uses humour to make it relatable for the target group.
Watch the whole video on Twitter!
All in all, Viral Facts Africa made for a really interesting showcase. But perhaps the most intriguing thing for me, personally, was to see someone be willing to give up reach on their own social accounts in favour of giving the content the best possible chance.
The folks at Fathm realised early on that what the content needed to gain traction was not so much to be bundled in one place but to be available to all partners without any hurdles. So they put the content first.
It’s genuinely refreshing to see someone in the social media industry be this humble. Perhaps it’s something more of us should consider at times.