How do you verify the accuracy of reports about an event that is still unfolding, in a difficult-to-reach place, with no credible and independent source, and even worse, no public agency willing to comment?
These are some of the challenges with fact-checking security-related news in Nigeria, such as when the report concerns a conflict or an attack. Often times, these conflicts take place in rural parts of the country that are not easily accessible, making it difficult for reporters and researchers to access. Even when they happen in urban areas, the sites are usually cordoned off to outsiders and if that is not the case, the area will still be unsafe to visit.
Bear in mind that these conflicts are often sectarian in nature, driven by either religion or ethnicity. As such, it is very difficult to get an independent, unbiased and credible source as most sources within the area will be influenced by either their ethnic or religious sentiments.
Usually, a fact-checker will turn to a government agency such as the police, the military or the emergency management authority to verify the accuracy of the news in circulation. However, it is quite tricky here because a lot of times, the crisis is still ongoing even after the news has broken.
So, the question you ask is whether you wait for the security agencies to bring the situation under control and release an official report, or you fact-check the true number of casualties at the time the ‘fake news’ was reported and keep updating your reports as the situation unfolds.
But your first question leads to even more questions about trust and morality: how do you trust the police who ideally would either refuse to confirm the news or give inaccurate details in order to save their image? They would most likely underestimate the number of victims or refuse to confirm the faith or ethnicity of victims and perpetrators in sectarian conflicts, which may not be the worst thing to do in such conflicts. As a fact-checker, you also do not want to offend political sensitivities or inflame passions that could lead to greater crisis.
In February 2019, Dubawa tried to fact-check the news on whether 130 persons were killed in Kajuru, Kaduna State as alleged by the Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai. However, that attempt has run into all the challenges detailed above.
The security situation in Kajuru has continued to deteriorate as there has been another alleged attack which is said to have killed up to 120 persons.
It has been very difficult to verify this and the previous attack in terms of who the victims are and the numbers as Kajuru has been difficult to access and remains a volatile area.
Also, finding credible and independent sources who can give their unbiased positions on the issue has also been a herculean task. Government agencies, when they provide information, on the attacks, often contradict themselves.
These sort of challenges are commonplace when verifying security-related news. Sadly, these challenges make fact-checking almost impossible. For fact-checkers and everyday reporters, the key is to understand that the speed of verification is secondary to the accuracy of the verification. It is thus best to wait for the situation to simmer before arriving at a concluded fact-check.
There are times when credible organizations provide statistics of casualties from the crisis or an account of events leading up to it. For example, the international human rights organization Amnesty International provided a casualty figure for clashes between the Nigerian Army and Shiite protesters in October 2018. Expectedly, the figures were disputed by the Army. In such a scenario, you can conclude that Amnesty International is more credible, unbiased and independent than the Army and use them as a source.
Importantly, fact-checkers should be alert and critical at all times. Always cross-check information given by sources to ascertain their veracity. Correct and detailed attribution of sources must also be done to aid audiences make their own judgement. In instances where credible sources are hard to come by and officials are unwilling to comment, reporters can fall on experts or use the crowdsourcing approach.
More importantly, be safe! As much as fact-checkers would want to go to great length to provide audiences with the right information, they need to be alive to do this. As such, reporters must take their safety seriously. If possible, fact-checkers should ensure their whereabouts are known to colleagues at work when venturing into dangerous and volatiles zones.
To the average citizen, while awaiting verified reports, it is important to not share information about conflicts that have not been verified, especially when it contains sensitive details or accusations. This point can never be overemphasised.
If compelled to share information about conflicts for security purposes, ensure that details about casualties or identities of victims and perpetrators are not included or that the messages are not politically charged so as not to increase tensions and inflame passions.
The overriding aim for sharing information should be to ensure the safety of other people and reduce casualties.
It is also important to closely follow as many credible sources as possible as the situation unfolds and stay regularly updated rather than just going with the first version of events.