This is the fifth installment of our series "Fact-checking around the world," which highlights organizations fighting against misinformation worldwide. You can read the rest of the series here.
Johana Wild was working as a journalist in Rwanda in 2014 when a Facebook post about the death of the president, Paul Kagame, started circulating. The report prompted people to take to the streets and celebrate in the neighboring country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“For several hours, nobody could find out if this rumor was actually true or not,” said Wild.
The German journalist had been in Africa for three years, and it was not the first time she was taken by surprise by unusual rumors spreading online like wildfire.
However, what bothered her most was her lack of skills to deal with online misinformation.
“As a print and radio journalist, I had no background in fact-checking and verification and I really did not know what to do,” she said. “I was completely overwhelmed.”
Wild decided that she wanted to further explore the topic of fake news.
In 2016, after receiving a master’s degree in online journalism at Birmingham City University, she participated in a program with Media Lab Bayern, a media incubator that brings together journalists and IT specialists.
Teaming up with another journalist and two software developers, she co-founded the first digital fact-checking organization in Germany. Its name, Wafana, is a combination of the words for truth (Wahrheit), fact (Fakten) and news (Nachrichten).
The organization provides online verification training for newsrooms and journalists across the country, a need that Wild considers pressing.
Before 2017, Wild said that the issue of misinformation did not spark much interest in her native country of Germany. Through interviews with 20 German newsrooms, researchers at Wafana found that most journalists felt they did not have sufficient knowledge to fact-check online content.
Wild and her team wanted to go further than simply training journalists to fact-check. In August 2017, they launched Crowdalyzer, a social listening tool.
“Not only does the tool show the current topic trends, but also the current fake information trends,” she explained.
The tool was developed for the German market where Wild said there aren’t usually huge hoaxes that reach large audiences. Instead, misinformation often takes the form of small falsities and incorrect facts that circulate within specific, online communities.
Crowdalyzer uses machine learning to make a profile of the extended online community surrounding a topic, media company or political party to track what they’re talking about.
While there were already tools to detect misinformation, Crowdalyzer allows journalists to not only spot fake news but also target the community where it’s circulating, which gives them “more opportunities to debunk it,” according to Wild.
Several newsrooms in the country are using it, including a local newsroom that helps Wafana develop and improve Crowdalyzer by giving regular feedback.
Germany has severe laws aimed at limiting fake news, hate speech and illegal content. Online networks have the responsibility to take down posts within 24 hours for criminal content and seven days for less clear-cut cases, or else pay a fine. Even with these strict laws in place, Wild said dubious content still circulates.
“The problem is misinformation is not always against the law,” said Wild. “Very often, the information we find is in a grey zone.”
The main challenge the organization faces is the pace and extent of misinformation.
“Bots are still very stupid, they don't behave 100 percent like humans,” she said. “This is about to change, so we need to change. We need to constantly adapt to the misinformation landscape and the challenge is financing the time we need for experimentation.”
Wild said she is motivated to continue to innovate and find solutions at the intersection of journalists and machine learning. Wafana was listed as one of The Global Editors Network’s top 30 Startups for News in 2018.