Defusing the rumour mill, digitally
The text-messaging technology that’s helping quash misinformation and save lives in Kenya
Posted by Brian Owens on February 16, 2016
In southeastern Kenya’s remote Tana River Delta, bad information can be deadly. For six months starting in the summer of 2012, violent clashes between two of the region’s main ethnic groups, Pokomo farmers and Orma herders, killed about 170 people and displaced as many as 40,000.
Much of the violence was driven by rumours, as people heard about attacks or planned attacks and retaliated or launched pre-emptive attacks of their own. But most of the rumours were false or exaggerated, either growing organically from a misunderstanding, or started deliberately to stir up trouble.
So in 2013, with support from the International Development Research Centre, The Sentinel Project, a Toronto-based NGO that works to prevent genocide, began studying how the rumours spread and how to counter them.
Christopher Tuckwood, The Sentinel Project’s executive director, notes the lack of any local media in the area is a major driver of rumours. “People have no reliable source of information, so they rely on word of mouth, which is often unreliable,” he says.
To help fill that gap, the Sentinel Project created Una Hakika (Swahili for Are you sure?), a service that uses mobile phone text-messages, voice calls and Facebook to verify or debunk rumours and provide accurate information about the local situation. When subscribers hear a worrying rumour — that a neighbouring village is stockpiling weapons for an attack, for example — they can send it to Una Hakika to be checked out. John Green Otunga, the project’s local coordinator, then investigates the rumour with the help of local police and community volunteers, and reports back to the subscriber and others in the area on its veracity.
In January 2016, for example, a young Pokomo man went to the mainly Orma village of Kipao to work for the day, but did not return home that night. The next morning, rumours began to spread that he had been murdered. Otunga investigated and discovered that the man had reappeared unharmed later that morning — he’d been delayed on his way home, and had decided to camp out in a tree for the night. By getting the word out with Una Hakika, Otunga was able to prevent pointless violence. “That morning, some young men were planning a revenge attack,” he says.
Una Hakika is careful about how it sends out information. For example, the service won’t send out a message debunking a rumour to an area where that rumour hasn’t been spreading. “We don’t want to spread rumours inadvertently,” says Tuckwood. And if a report of violence turns out to be true, the reply will often be delayed to give people a chance to calm down.
The most important aspect of the project has been building trust between Una Hakika and the local communities, so that they see it as a reliable source of information, says Otunga. That involved meeting with the elders and chiefs of the villages, and getting members of the community involved in the project (Una Hakika has about 200 volunteer community “ambassadors” who help with investigations, pass on information and organize meetings). Gaining that trust was a challenge, and took the better part of a year. “The first reaction was that people thought the organization had its own agenda,” says Kode Komora, one of the ambassadors. “But with time, they started to trust us as they saw the information was good.”
That trust-building has paid off. Over the past two years, phase one of the Una Hakika project in the Tana Delta has gained more than 1,500 subscribers in 17 villages, and reaches an estimated 45,000 people. There has been an “explosive improvement” in the quality of information available to people in the Tana Delta with the arrival of Una Hakika, says Komora.
The next step is to expand the project to cover more of the country in time for the August 2017 elections, when politically motivated misinformation is expected to raise tensions. The political parties tend to divide along ethnic lines and often play up the conflicts between groups to drum up support, and that can boil over into violence, as it did during the 2007 elections when more than 1,000 people were killed. The hope is that Una Hakika can defuse some of those tensions this time around.
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
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