This new Nepali site is fact-checking candidates both on local radio and TikTok
Nepal has some highly specific fact-checking challenges. In 2015, a Google-backed project worked with local villagers to improve mapping of the Himalayas, which stretch across the north of the country. With thousands of map points collected and images added to Google Earth, the initiative helped journalists’ verification efforts in the region, including when scrutinising whether some mountain climbers really had reached Everest’s peak.
In the weeks before the Nepalese parliamentary elections on 20 November 2022, however, misinformation has settled into a more familiar pattern: historic videos resurfacing on social networks in new, false contexts and emotive memes and graphics spreading misleading information shared by supporters of candidates. Media and public figures also contribute to the circulation of misinformation and disinformation in the country. In a 2021 study of 49,051 articles published by Nepalese media, 1,817 were found to contain false or misleading information.
In August, journalist Deepak Adhikari launched NepalCheck, a Nepal-based outlet dedicated to fact-checking and countering disinformation in the country. Adhikari is an experienced investigative journalist and has worked as a correspondent for both AFP and DPA. He was the editor of fact-checking initiative South Asia Check for almost two-and-a-half years until July 2022 and has led research into gendered disinformation in Nepal.
Adhikari’s team (three freelancers and three full-time journalists, including him) has witnessed a shift in how information and disinformation was being shared and consumed during local elections in Nepal in May.
Balendra Shah, a rapper and independent candidate, defeated more veteran politicians and became mayor of Kathmandu by leveraging social media. A group of young Shah supporters, who had been using social media handles to spread news about a series of nationwide strikes, used these accounts to support his mayoral campaign.
By highlighting Shah’s background in engineering, his supporters suggested he was a suitable candidate to solve issues of waste and the lack of public spaces. With the electorate increasingly reliant on social media, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, says Adhikari, it was easy to influence urban voters in Kathmandu.
Adhikari is keen to build on the work of South Asia Check and believes a more localised operation can have a greater impact in Nepal.
“The idea to fact-check the [entire] region is impossible,” he says. “We have more than 200 languages and millions of people. You need to have a fact-checker in every country. I know Nepal very well. A lot of misinformation has to do with history. So if you know the land and the history, it’s easier for you to debunk it.”
Since its launch, NepalCheck has published 30-40 fact-checks as well as explainers. These fact-checks frequently focus on politicians and public figures whose claims and speeches are often reported verbatim by the news media, says Adhikari: “There has to be someone who scrutinises those things,” he says.
Recent fact-checks include debunking a falsified photo showing two parliamentary candidates campaigning for the Communist Party of Nepal and overturning a video supporting the campaign of a candidate who had been removed from the running.
Working in Nepali and in English, and publishing on the NepalCheck website, these fact-checks are also shared with and published by local media outlets. Adhikari is regularly interviewed by local radio stations and this broadens the distribution of fact-checked information.
Dealing with platforms
The need to monitor misinformation and disinformation and its impact on Nepal’s elections is gaining momentum. Meta has opened its ad library for Nepal, allowing journalists to track political parties’ spending on its platforms. Meta is also partnering with AFP’s Kathmandu bureau to fact-check election misinformation. Adhikari says: “We are part of this bigger moment. At least this time around Meta has become serious about the Nepal elections to help mitigate the misinformation and disinformation.”
Recent explainers have focused on answering voters’ questions about the election, including how inclusive parties’ nominations are. “We do explainers because you can’t fact-check everything. You need proof and a kind of counter-fact,” says Adhikari. “Plus, fact-checking is an argument. It’s an adversarial form of journalism. Explainers are less adversarial.”
The patterns the NepalCheck team are currently seeing in how disinformation is being packaged and distributed will be recognisable to other fact-checkers around the world. Old videos are resurfacing without context or in a new, false context. These “shallow fakes” start to trend especially when the subject is a popular politician, says Adhikari. Graphics and images, especially those that look more professionally made, are used by supporters of different parties to build false narratives: “It’s easier to deceive people with good-looking graphics.”
The sharing of misinformation and disinformation on TikTok is a growing challenge, says Adhikari, with shallow fakes going viral and accounts actively promoting candidates from different parties. “It’s really hard to investigate because of TikTok’s algorithm. You never know what’s coming from where and what you see is based on your behaviour, so there’s a lack of transparency [when investigating the source and the journey of information],” he explains.
The fact-checker’s dilemma
The status of a citizenship bill in the Nepali parliament has become a target of much misinformation and disinformation in the build-up to the vote. It’s a topic that taps into emotive issues relating to migration, citizenship and foreign influence. The team has produced multiple fact-checks on the subject. Overall, Adhikari admits there has been more disinformation than a team of this size can handle. They have to be careful and selective with the information they choose to fact-check.
“You don’t want to give oxygen to disinformation,” he says. “If something isn’t viral and you fact-check it, you may amplify the false information.”
Fact-checking requires both human, expert sources and documentary evidence, but the lack of a database of public records and poorly maintained newspaper and news archives in Nepal is a challenge to the process, says Adhikari.
Nepal is also highly vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters. NepalCheck would like to expand its focus to fact-checking information about climate change and natural disasters, using experts to help debunk claims. Health misinformation is also rife in the country, says Adhikari, with unverified health tips regularly shared by traditional media outlets. The issue here and for the future of NepalCheck is funding. “Local funding doesn’t exist in Nepal; it’s international funders that we have to reach,” he says. NepalCheck’s current support from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is due to end in December.
“This is accountability journalism. We are holding powerful people to account,” Adhikari says. “More scrutiny is needed about what they say.”
Laura Oliver is a freelance journalist based in the UK. She has written for the 'Guardian', BBC, 'The Week' and more. She is a visiting lecturer in online journalism at City, University of London, and works as an audience strategy consultant for newsrooms. You can find her work here.