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“#AFFCameroon is our contribution to deconstruct false and negative perceptions”

Donald Tchiengue, Digital Projects Coordinator of #defyhatenow, in the following interview talks about the Africa Factchecking Fellowship, its success stories and prospects.

Can you introduce the #AFFCameroon Fellowship to our readers?

The Africa Factchecking Fellowship – #AFFCameroon is a fact-checking training programme dedicated to content creators and civil society actors. It is a program of the #defyhatenow initiative led by r0g_agency for Open Culture and Critical Transformation, funded by the German Foreign Office. Launched in January 2020 dubbed #FactsMatter237, the quarterly training is implemented in Cameroon by a youth-led Organisation, Civic Watch. To date, we have had the opportunity to train over 150 journalists, bloggers, content creators, community leaders and digital rights activists. Fellows receive hands-on skills and knowledge in fact-checking techniques and methods, data journalism, online data collection and analysis. It should also be pointed out that we are taking advantage of this program to further equip the Fellows to effectively conduct online and offline awareness campaigns. So, we aim to provide all the necessary capacity-building, networking and available tools for them to work harder in detecting false information. They are also expected to organise and run media and information literacy initiatives at their levels.

For a program that aims to counter the proliferation of disinformation both online and offline, how would you assess the results achieved so far?

We have come a long way. It’s encouraging seeing that the number of people who are gaining awareness of the stakes of disinformation in a country like Cameroon is growing by the day. We are more or less satisfied because most of the Fellows we have trained today are working in reputable media houses. Others work with organisations that have a huge direct impact on the ground, as well as at national and international levels. And we’re delighted, especially as #defyhatenow had succeeded to gain a reputation as one of the key actors working on questions relating to disinformation. We see a vision that started timidly three years ago with 7 Fellows, grow in number and impact.

The Africa Factchecking Fellowship – #AFFCameroon, through its www.237check.org platform contributes significantly in the media and information literacy landscape in Cameroon. At the beginning of the Fellowship, we targeted journalists and bloggers, because they create content and have an audience that follows them religiously. Gradually we included online content creators of social media platforms, civil society actors because we realised they collect and share data, thus the need to learn how to select facts from what is fake. Our fellows have three main deliverables: producing factchecking report, mapping viral trends through social media health report and community outreach in the form of specialised meet-ups. 

The direct feedback we have received from Fellows is that they have improved the quality of their content, enhanced trust with their local communities and particularly, have been saved from professional mistakes and “trouble” thanks to their factchecking skills. Also, we see more and more people taking a personal commitment toward reducing fake news. We see this in the types of posts, comments or even interactions in whatsapp groups. We see people transforming from bystanders to community weavers, taking the responsibility to speak or react when they see any content that is not meant for good. We are also glad to see that as events around disinformation happen in Cameroon and abroad, most of the main actors are Fellows we have trained. In November 2023, we organised a National Conference on Disinformation in Yaounde, that brought together over 100 former Fellows, experts, public authorities, diplomatic missions and tech giants like Meta. 

Beyond Cameroon, we are actively participating in global discussions aimed at promoting factchecking practice. #defyhatenow’s factchecking platform, #237Check got admitted as a member of the pan-African Africa Fact Network, grouping over 70 organisations under Africa Check, the continent’s leading factchecking organisation. #AFFCameroon has also opened us to collaboration with the Africa Factchecking Alliance – AFCA through Code for Africa – CfA. This year, we equally ran a project on factchecking climate change and related issues sponsored by Meedan under the Check Global Funding, which gave our Fellows the opportunity to work on specialised themes. Through the invitations we continue to receive from other stakeholders, we are proud to see that the work we are doing is attracting interest from development partners. In April this year, the US Embassy in Yaounde organised a trip to the US on countering disinformation, with 10 journalists from different parts of Cameroon, among whom four #defyhatenow members. Thanks to the recommendation of Africa Check, we participated in CFI Media & Development two-day Global Conference on Disinformation that was held in Paris in July. For the second consecutive year, we have attended the Africa Facts Summit opening us to new avenues for collaboration at the level of the African continent. In addition to direct impact with selected people, we are working on developing online modules to help internet users gain skills on fostering peacebuilding individually. Our main working tool, the #defyhatenow Social Media Hatespeech Migitation Field Guide has an entire chapter dedicated to factchecking content shared on digital platforms. We also collaborate with a sister #defyhatenow project known as #211Check operating in South Sudan. Two other key projects are in gestation, which we believe will go a long way to reshape media and information literacy in Cameroon and beyond. These are our Early Warning Early Response platform and an online application providing real time information on happenings even in the remotest parts of the country. 

From the success stories above, one would feel running the Fellowship feels like lying on a bed of roses. Are there any difficulties, if yes, how does the team overcome them?

The difficulties we encounter in carrying out the program are two-folds: technical and functional. In Cameroon, as in most African countries, access to information is a real problem. So it’s difficult for these professionals to produce quality and timely factchecking articles. In some cases, where the information is available, the sources refuse to be quoted for reasons best known to them. As a result, we are obliged to abandon many topics, even after collecting data for a period of time. We also face difficulty linked to the media landscape of our country, especially the information production chain, research and analysis. Practising factchecking in such a context is difficult as factcheckers are perceived negatively by political actors, especially those who wield power. Sometimes, their work is considered a threat, when dealing with political issues. Some of our Fellows even because of factchecking and social media health reports they produced, which did not sound well with some people. 

The second obstacle we face in the implementation of this #AFFCameroon has more to do with ignorance of the subject matter. Fact-checking has been around for as long as journalism exists, but in Cameroon, the practice is still widely unknown. Indeed, journalists are always called upon to verify information before sharing it. However many journalists do not master the techniques and tools used for advanced search on the internet. So we need to start training these media professionals all over again, starting with the conceptual framework, introduction of online monitoring and data analysis, reporting, writing, etc. So far, it has not been easy getting the expected buying-in, particularly from the experienced ones. Deconstructing what they already know, while introducing them to new knowledge usually meets with hesitation and the process requires a longer period of time. However, we have an upcoming younger generation that is ever ready to learn. They easily adhere to the Fellowship principles and are easier to work with. But overall, where we succeed to have this intergenerational blend, we find very interesting results. We have just ended Cohort 8 and preparations for the next Cohort are in high gear. Surprisingly, after the badge comes and goes, we realise there is still a lot to learn, based on their peculiarities. The idea of obliging Fellows to work in groups has been one of our main strategies, owing to the fact that they develop leadership and networking skills, but also important because they are able to overcome differences while seeking the same results.

What is the relevance of having such a program, especially looking at the costly nature of funding such an activity? 
Cameroon today is at a crossroad and is hit by security threats from different parts of the country. In such a context, information is key! I say so because informed decisions need to be made in order to pursue the sustainable development of any country. In the absence of this, or by giving space to misinformation, disinformation and mal-information, all we will have is chaos. As observed today, we are still suffering from Boko Haram incursions in the Far North Region. We also see the Anglophone Crisis, entering its seventh year without any signs of ending. Following the results of the 2018 Presidential electoral process, we realised that elections could be major vectors of crisis in our country. #defyhatenow launched this training because we are in a country witnessing different types of crises, mostly fuelled disinformation and mal-information. This is our own contribution to not only deconstruct the negative perceptions we have of each other, but proposing solutions to further consolidate social cohesion. Through this Fellowship, we have been able to bring people together from different cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds. The reports we produce and publish on our www.237check.org platform serves as an information portal for decision makers. All our contents are free to use, provided we are credited properly.

So the #AFFCameroon has trained 150+ Fellows operating in eight out of 10 Regions of Cameroon. In what way will Cohort 9 be different? 

 It is relevant to always return to our basic and main task, which is information verification. We are not trying to choose what information to verify, or what information not to verify, because all information deserves to be verified if it has a potential impact on the community. The particularity of Cohort 8 was we were banking on opening up the practice of fact-checking to specialised fields. This means we’re not just going to check social and political news, but we also set ourselves the goal of equipping Fellows with the necessary knowledge to work on topics like climate change, elections, governance, health, arts and culture. With the political calendar of the next two years, with Cohort 9, we envisage focusing on factchecking elections. We need to start preparing people’s minds now on how to treat information that comes their way, in order to make informed decisions. It is our responsibility to contribute in every possible way to the development of our country. Our vision is to promote a sustainable society without hate, violence; one where each and every thrives and feels a sense of belonging. 

Interviewed by Nadine Bindey, Communication Intern

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