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2014 in review: Ebola, Boko Haram, elections and dodgy data

Can salt water or nano-silver cure Ebola? How many schoolgirls did Boko Haram kidnap from Chibok? And did militants in northern Nigeria really massacre 375 Christians? How many people are unemployed in Zimbabwe? Could cancer be a greater cause of death in Africa than HIV/Aids? Is Swaziland a “monarchial democracy”? Can opinion polls be trusted?

These are just some of the many subjects that Africa Check has examined over the past twelve months. As we continue to expand our operations on the continent, we look back at the year that was.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa spawned a small cottage industry in medical myths and conspiracy theories. Many of them sought to cynically capitalise on the desperate search for a cure by those afflicted, or play on the fears of ordinary people. 

These are myths that can kill and in the battle to tackle the outbreak, facts matter. Drawing on the latest available research, Africa Check published fact sheets explaining  what Ebola is, and how it is diagnosed, what the risks are and how it can be treated

Perhaps most importantly we tried to sift fact from fiction, investigating spurious claims of “cures” offered by charlatans and backstreet doctors, from salt-water treatments and “nano-silver” to herbal remedies. We also investigated claims by Ghanaian government officials that “all entry points” into the country had been equipped with facilities to screen for Ebola. The claims were false.

Boko Haram
Nigeria’s brutal Boko Haram insurgency gained worldwide headlines with the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from a school in Chibok. But the bloody violence that has accompanied its campaign has been worsening for years at a cost of thousands of lives. 

The insurgency, which began in 2009, entered a dangerous new phase this year with horrific massacres and bomb blasts.

Who is Boko Haram? And how many people have died at the hands of the militants and the Nigerian security forces? Was it 13 000, as claimed by Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan? And how many of the Chibok schoolgirls are still missing? These were some of the questions we tried to answer. 

Given the atrocities linked to Boko Haram, claims that it was involved in the massacre of 375 Christians in Nigeria didn’t seem far-fetched. A grotesque image showing dozens of charred corpses lying in rows in the sun went viral on social media earlier this year. 

The caption read: “Boko Haram burns 375 Christians”. But, as we discovered, the image had actually been taken in the Democratic Republic of Congo and showed the horrific aftermath of a fuel tanker explosion. Faked images and online hoaxes are a growing problem, gaining a life of their own and spreading quickly. 

So too is the misuse of news images by popular news websites.

Quack cures and misleading health claims
Exposing misleading and dangerous health claims and quack cures is a key part of our work. Our Nigeria health correspondent, Dr Ike Anya, investigated a claim by a controversial professor that an extract from the bitter kola tree could be used to treat glaucoma and questioned assertions that there is a “strong link” between suya kebabs and cancer.

We examined suggestions that South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, had hurt the fight against HIV/Aids more than his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. And we investigated a newspaper report stating that a third of South Africans suffer from mental illnesses

Zimbabwe’s Registrar General made headlines when he claimed – wrongly – that women should avoid using contraceptives because they could lead to cancer. We also fact-checked a Channel Four report suggesting that cancer is a bigger cause of death in Africa than HIV/Aids

Actually, the top five killers in Africa are Aids, lower respiratory tract infections, diarrhoeal diseases, malaria and strokes. Read our guide to evaluating health claims and quack cures.   

Democracies and elections
Is Swaziland really a “monarchical democracy”? The Swazi government routinely claims that the kingdom adheres to the “dictates of true democracy”. King Mswati III calls it a “monarchical democracy” which he has described as a “marriage between the monarch and the ballot box”. 

Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, the director of The Nation magazine unpacked the claims in a hard-hitting analysis piece.

In a year of elections, we fact-checked dozens of claims by the ANC and the opposition Democratic Alliance, looked at whether the Niger Delta is the “epicentre of electoral fraud” in Nigeria and tracked Namibia’s fifth national election since independence

Opinion polls and surveys are a fixture of every election. But not all polls are created equal. All too often news websites, newspapers and radio and television stations fail to properly interrogate them. Just as a single-source news article will lack credibility, so does a news report based solely on the results of a snapshot poll or a survey. 

Journalists should always question how a poll or survey was done, and dig deeper. Context, additional comment and analysis are vital.

The search for reliable data
Accurate, publicly accessible data is hard to come by in many African countries. Often it is impossible to find reliable data to fact-check claims accurately. In those instances, we point out the gaps and inaccuracies and push for better, more reliable data. 

This is true of Zimbabwe, where estimated unemployment figures range from as low as 4% to as high as 95%, and South Africa where road accident statistics are unreliable.

Population projections for the continent are also a subject of hot debate. These include claims that Zambia has the world’s fastest growing population.

Sadly, bad and incomplete data all too often bedevils official statistics on the continent. Seventeen African countries have not conducted a census in the past decade and five have not done so in 20 years. And in many cases, the data simply can’t be trusted.

This article was written by Africa Check, a nonprofit fact-checking organisation. Follow Africa Check on Twitter: @AfricaCheck.

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