Zimbabwean fact-checkers battle a new wave of fake stories

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In a polarised political climate, Zimbabwean fact-check organisation ZimFact is debunking false stories and adding facts to the conversation about Covid-19.

Robert Mugabe imposed an increasingly ruinous rule on Zimbabwe for four decades, until a military coup ousted him in 2017. Since then, misinformation has been described as a “tsunami”. Now, as elsewhere, misinformation has become part of the country’s political game.
 

“Most often the elite is benefiting from mis- and disinformation. Government is using disinformation to paint itself in a good light and portray itself as handling the Covid 19 pandemic in an exemplary manner which should be commended by citizens. On the other hand, politicians from the opposition parties also use false stories to try and discredit the work that Government is doing,” says Lifaqane Nare, who works as Head of Programmes at ZimFact and was one of the first fact checkers in the country.

Zimfact is a non-partisan news and information fact-checking platform, founded on the principles of impartiality and independence, and has worked closely with IMS since its inception. The platform’s “Promise Checker” tracks the delivery status of government programmes, pre- and post-election. This has boosted both accountability and the provision of accurate, fair, balanced information.

In October 2020, President Emmerson Mnangagwa was quoted in The Herald, Zimbabwe’s largest newspaper, as declaring that the WHO had ranked his country one of the best in the world for its COVID-19 response. He claimed that a ranking of 102 represented a high score, compared with nations that had scored single digits.

However, on its website and Facebook page, ZimFact quickly declared this claim to be false. “In fact, the WHO had done no such thing, but the president was giving the impression his handling of COVID-19 has been so good, that it was even being commended by bodies such as the WHO,” said Lifaqane Nare.

Lifaqane Nare works as Head of Programmes at ZimFact

Zimbabwe’s opposition has also been  caught misleading the public for political gain. In a speech in November, Tendai Biti,  second Vice President of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, criticised the government’s handling of the pandemic, claiming Zimbabwe had the  world’s lowest per capita rate of COVID-19 testing. ZimFact duly crunched the numbers and found Zimbabwe actually had better rates of testing that several of the regional countries that Biti had cited.

In a country where the trickle of official information is either slow or non-existent, where inflation runs rampant, corruption is endemic, and lives are lived at the very edge, the rapid growth in access to social media has given Zimbabweans the ideal means to vent their frustrations and air their opinions.

As the first cases of coronavirus hit Zimbabwe, the most popular stories on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter suggested that Africa’s warm climate would keep the virus away or that Africans would be immune. Later, as the virus spread, so too did stories of alternative cures, such as inhaling steam, for which there was no evidence.

Africa’s fact-checkers have been mobilising: the continent’s first, Africa Check, launched in Johannesburg in 2012 and has been joined by a dozen other platforms, including in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Mozambique, and Egypt.

“We need to make it easier to find reliable information,” said ZimFact founder Cris Chinaka during a panel for African fact-checkers, in Cape Town in 2019. “Misinformation flourishes when reliable information is scarce or mistrusted”