By Makana Eyre
In the last days of January, a sex tape began to spread rapidly across Haiti’s social media channels. Its reach was particularly broad because people claimed that the star of the video was a Haitian minister called Enol Joseph. The video turned out to be fake, but it still had a strong impact and underlined a problem that’s become more and more pervasive in Haiti—the spread of misinformation. One organization is trying to fight back.
T-Check Haiti, a new fact-checking platform, aims to give Haitians an easy way to know whether information is fact-based. Co-founded and led by Franciyou Germain, T-Check launched late last year and since has been analyzing stories and allegations like the alleged sextape for accuracy. For Germain, the goal of T-Check is simple, saying that they exist “to expose fake news and spread facts and truth, no matter the consequences.”
Fake news has become a problem in many parts of the world over the last few years. There have been allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and countries from Brazil to Austria are struggling with how to deal with the spread of misinformation.
But for countries like Haiti, whose system of governance is young and fragile, fake news can have an enormous impact, especially given increased access to technology. As it has done for many developing countries, Whatsapp connected Haitians to each other and to the wider world. Suddenly, there was an easy and affordable way for residents of the Caribbean nation to communicate with friends and family there, but also to people in the global diaspora in Paris, New York, Montreal, and Miami.
With Whatsapp also came an unforeseen challenge—the ability for misinformation and questionable news stories to be spread with speed never seen before. For Germain, Whatsapp and the information spread there poses a huge threat. “Fake news puts our young democracy at risk,” he said.
The idea to create a fact-checking platform in Haiti came about because of a Hackathon in 2016 that aimed to create and develop new projects at the intersection of journalism and technology.
“More than other countries, Haiti needs a fact-checker because fake news puts Haiti’s young democracy in danger, the population is manipulated by certain press outlets, and politicians flood the public with false figures and stories. T-Check was created to provide the truth, no matter the consequences,” Germain said.
According to Germain, WhatsApp and Facebook are the two primary ways fake news is circulated in Haiti, and many people believe what they receive on this platforms and share it without taking a moment to reflect on whether an article is truthful.
“Fake news can become viral in a matter of a few minutes,” Germain said.
Germain also notes that in his view, even some of the established newspapers publish false figures or information from time to time.
Although T-Check may seem technical, it’s actually based on verification by humans, not artificial intelligence or an algorithm.
“We use tools like Google Image, the plugin Invid among others to verify photos and videos. But the biggest part of our work is thanks to the database from media members of the Haitian Association of Online Media,” Germain said. Germain also adds that they have a network of journalists in many countries to double check their verification.
For certain stories, fact checking is as simple as physically going to the field to check the facts, question witnesses, or visit institutions that hold statistics. T-Check also has in its network opinion leaders who analyze the statements of politicians to detect lies, manipulations and unspoken statements. “We are all investigative journalists. We have the know how to do this,” Germain said.
Not everyone is convinced that a fact-checking system can combat the problem of misinformation in Haiti.
For Francois Pierre-Louis, an Associate Professor Political Science at Queens College, Whatsapp has simply replaced a sophisticated network of people spreading rumors.
“Something might happen in the Palace, but people in the country would immediately know about it. There’s always been a system of transmitting,” Pierre-Louis said.
Pierre-Louis believes that this history of the rumor network—what he calls Teledjol—coupled with problems in literacy and weak democratic norms, makes it hard for any fact-checker, no matter the aim to actually make an impact.
“The problem in Haiti is that we’ve been under a dictatorship for a while, and when it comes to information, it’s hard to know what’s fake and what’s good,” said Henry Beaucejour, a Haitian journalist and tech commentator.
While Beaucejour admits that fake news is a huge problem, he expresses doubts about the aim of T-Check Haiti.
“I have a feeling that there’s a political force behind this. There is an election this year, and so I think they’re just doing this to have something to say.” Germain denies this and says he’s not funded by the government or given any private funding.
Other countries have tried to thwart misinformation using platforms similar to T-Check. In November of last year, a coalition of over a dozen Nigerian news organizations came together in advance of an election to fight misinformation. Called CrossCheck Nigeria, the coalition aimed to work in tandem to investigate questionable claims and reports, especially those being spread on social media. Along with other prominent Haitian journalists like Milo Milfort and Godson Labrun, Germain and T-Check have begun analyzing dozens of stories and publishing conclusions based on accuracy. T-Check Haiti can be found here: www.ticheck.org.