How to Reduce Misinformation with ICTs in Rural Kenya

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Misinformation poses a problem to development both in the developed and developing world. With the rise of ICTs, particularly social media, misinformation is propagated faster and wider and therefore threatens development. Misinformation fuels violence, hinders public health, governance, and other development efforts. If ICTs can be used to propagate misinformation, why not use the same to counter misinformation?
The Sentinel Project is using ICTs to map and counter misinformation that can lead to violence, hence preventing communities from succumbing to mass atrocities. One such initiative, Una Hakika, in the Tana Delta region in Kenya, exists in an area where rumours have proven to be a source of conflict due to lack of management. We have just published our Phase 1 Final Report.
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The Tana Delta is a marginalised area in Southern Kenya that succumbed to conflict during late 2012 and early 2013, when the general election tensions were very high. The effects of the violence were adverse leading to deaths of approximately 170 people and displaced tens of thousands. Fear and distrust was galvanised especially between the Ormas and Pokomos – the predominant communities in the area.
The lack of a local radio stations and information sources also led to the escalation in rumours, particularly after the violence as there was no means to verify or address the misinformation. With the inception of Una Hakika, residents can now send in rumour reports which Una Hakika verifies with the help of a network of trained community ambassadors, NGOs, and local authorities. True, accurate information is then relayed back to the community.
By verifying rumours and increasing access to information, the initiative has reduced tensions and increased intercommunication and interaction between the two communities. The residents have learned how to verify reports they receive before taking any action, creating a sense of ownership and control – a long-term goal of Una Hakika.
During this first phase, we learned several important lessons:

  • Misinformation management systems work. Una Hakika has established the value of establishing misinformation management systems for mitigating the harmful impact of unchecked rumours, whether in the form of misinformation or deliberate disinformation. Citizens, NGOs, government bodies, and the media can all benefit from the clarified information environment created by such systems and so they should be widely integrated into development efforts and government programming.
  • ICTs improve efficiencies. Information and communications technologies create efficiencies that enable misinformation management systems to operate more efficiently than otherwise possible. The first steps in this direction were taken with the creation of the Una Hakika SMS reporting service and the implementation of the WikiRumours software which streamlined work flows so that a small number of staff were able to conduct work that would normally require a much larger team.
  • Sustainability is possible. Systems such as Una Hakika can be made sustainable in several ways ranging from encouraging attitudinal and behavioural shifts to setting up self-sustaining, community-funded mechanisms. At the most basic level, the Una Hakika model can impart lasting changes in how communities address unverified information and knowledge of the damaging effects of misinformation on community security, personal safety, and economic stability.

We also have several recommendations:

  • Use existing ICT in order to be effective. Using new technologies that are not readily available to the users reduces uptake, and can increase divisions, so focus on ICTs that the community is already using.
  • Trust is key in ensuring an effective misinformation management system. If the communities do not trust the organization then they cannot use the service. So building trust is very important and it can be done through establishing relationships with local authorities and existing groups. Establishing trust is one thing, but maintaining is another: this is done on a continuous basis.
  • Factor in socio-cultural norms of the region to ensure a positive uptake of counter messaging. They also need to factor in time to appease tempers, especially if the issue could raise conflicts.
  • Focus on human interactions, especially when dealing with communities. Frequent human interactions need to be taken into account since ICTs cannot replace frequent in-person meetings and face-to-face communications.

The development and peace-building practitioners worldwide working to recognize and counter misinformation can implement these lessons and recommendations for better results.
Written by Christine Mutisya, the Una Hakika project coordinator at the Sentinel Project.