Goldstuck on Gadgets

Meet the fact-checker’s fact checker

November 1st, 2017
At a conference running in Johannesburg today and tomorrow, one of the speakers will bring a new perspective to fact-checking and fighting the fake news onslaught, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
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Nechama Brodie doesn’t look like a private investigator or a secret agent. Nor, at the other end of the career excitement scale, does she look anything like an accountant or bookkeeper.

Yet, she employs skills central to all of these professions in her quest to perfect the art of fact-checking.

At the Liberty Vuka Knowledge Summit running today and tomorrow at the Sandton Convention Centre, she will teach attendees practical methods for how to question information, and hopes to inspire them to ask better questions.

“The secret in life is not to know everything,” she says. “But how do we learn just enough to ask the right questions from the right people?”

Nechama Brodie. Image by Sarah de Pina

Nechama Brodie.
Image by Sarah de Pina

It is just this dilemma that inspired her, in 2015, to launch TRI Facts as the research and training division of Africa Check, a respected and independent fact-checking agency. Brodie’s earlier work at Africa Check ranged from investigating crime and security statistics to researching politics and policy. She even explored the urban legends around Johannesburg being the world’s largest urban forest.

Heading up TRI Facts now gives this part-time musician the opportunity to share her methods, as well as her unusual perspective on information.

“The current epidemic of fake news, especially via social media, is a consequence of relying on the wrong people to tell us what is right and what is wrong in the media. But even mainstream media doesn’t always get it right.

“Even the term fake news is very problematic, because the media and politicians are both abusing the term. By calling it fake news, they are shying away from calling political propaganda what it really is: propaganda.”

The ordinary member of the public is fodder for this propaganda mill, especially in a time of social media’s ascendancy as a news source.

“There’s a decline in trust in the media. People trust their friends and family more. But generally, your friends and family are not necessarily that smart, so why do you trust them more? So I’ll be looking at the structures of who we choose to trust and why.”

Brodie makes a fascinating connection between distrust of media and the distrust of science that is currently fashionable in various constituencies in both the United States and South Africa.

 

“We’ve distorted media literacy, so that the concept of questioning media has been distorted into mistrust of media. That, then, also translates into people rejecting science.

“Of course science is not infallible, but fallibility is a process and it’s built into the scientific method. But now people say that, if one thing is wrong, it’s all wrong. As a result, they replace acceptable sources with unacceptable sources.”

This is not a new phenomenon, but social media has given it wings.

“It’s not very different to what we used to get from friends and family and neighbours before social media. But the timeline has collapsed, and we now get that information much faster.

“The Internet is a fantastic source of good information. But, when you start asking the how and why, how do you learn to ask better questions, and who can you ask? A hundred years ago scientists were experts in multiple areas; these

days they are expected to be experts in one specialist area. The original scientists were polymaths and real geniuses, not the geniuses we make ourselves out to be on Twitter. We confuse reading stuff on the Internet with making ourselves experts.”

This malaise has spread to journalists, who will now take legal documents to colleagues for opinions rather than calling lawyers. Brodie knows from her own experience how dangerous this can be.

“In my early 20s, when I was starting off as a writer, I had a strong assumption that I was always right. In retrospect, I was very lucky I didn’t make major errors. As I get older, I double-check everything. But not just by using Google. I make phone calls. I call universities, find professors, and meet people.

“The great thing about experts is that they refer you to knowledge, and don’t only give you their opinions. It becomes a knowledge tree.”

TRI Facts primarily offers research and training to journalists, analysts and government officials, among other. Its training includes understanding what facts can and cannot be checked, how bias can affect the ability to find and interpret data, how to find local data, and how to fact-check multimedia sources.

However, it also teaches a simple methodology that can be use anywhere by anyone if they are dubious about information. Brodie will share this approach during the Liberty Vuka Knowledge Summit.

“There is no magic to fact-checking. We teach that you can never be an expert, but that it’s okay. Your job is to find people who do know, and sources that are credible.”

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