In 2012 and 2013, a series of inter-ethnic massacres between the Orma and Pokomo ethnic groups in Kenya’s Tana Delta threw the local community into chaos. In order to understand why and how the violence happened, the Sentinel Project deployed a team to investigate and propose direct assistance measures to reduce the risk of further violence. It soon became clear that a major contributor to the conflict was the proliferation of rumours in the area, many of them false, some seemingly deliberately propagated by certain actors with malicious purposes, and others transmitted by local residents in a sincere effort to make sense of their information-starved situation. This uncertainty helped to create the atmosphere of fear, distrust, and hatred that enabled the violence. Compounding this situation was a lack of local media and communications infrastructure that otherwise might have enabled the timely investigation and broadcast of accurate information so a local culture developed within this information deficit which relied heavily on word of mouth to transmit news of local events.
The Sentinel Project team realized that addressing this information deficit could produce tangible improvements in stability, security, and inter-communal tensions so the organization proposed a mobile phone-based misinformation management system for the Tana Delta. This initiative also presented an opportunity to research the role of misinformation and its impact on conflict so that a broader understanding of the subject and a corresponding set of tools could be developed for use in contexts outside of the Tana Delta. With funding provided by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and in partnership with Nairobi-based iHub Research, the Sentinel Project launched Una Hakika (Swahili for “Are you sure?”) in October 2013. The system integrates telecommunications and traditional human networks so that Tana Delta residents can anonymously report unverified information to Una Hakika and receive accurate information in response once local program staff have investigated and verified it.
The first step in building Una Hakika was to create a combined Canadian and Kenyan team of researchers who conducted community consultations in the Tana Delta. A preliminary field survey gathered baseline data from twelve villages which would guide implementation and act as a reference dataset for later evaluations of Una Hakika’s effectiveness. Introductions to the community were made through traditional means of village meetings called barazas, where residents could learn about the initiative, express their thoughts or concerns, contribute suggestions for improvement, and volunteer to participate. These meetings were well received and similarly strong support was found within the local government, security forces, community and religious leaders, and civil society organizations operating in the Tana Delta. The motto of Una Hakika is that “peace begins with the truth” and this resonated with residents, who saw peace as central to development and economic growth.
Since its inception, Una Hakika has received a steady stream of reports as the Kenyan members of the team have worked hard to fully integrate into the communities they serve. This provided the project with an opportunity to ensure that community members were receiving accurate information while being able to analyze the nature, scope, and impact of this data. This dataset indicates the degree to which misinformation can be used by some actors in both offensive and defensive roles, conversely focusing the attention of government security forces on rival communities and guaranteeing the deployment of such forces close to communities feeling vulnerable to attack.
The data also demonstrates that detailed study of geographical features, physical infrastructure, demographics, and community relations can yield an understanding of how information flows within a region, thereby increasing the ability of misinformation management systems to intervene in the spread of malicious misinformation. Additionally, factors such as agricultural seasons, gender differences, and the growing prevalence of regional militant groups dramatically shaped information flows and the dissemination of misinformation within the area. During this time, the Una Hakika team has developed workflows, best practices, and software which are applicable in other contexts where misinformation poses a challenge worldwide.
Una Hakika’s efficacy was evaluated by comparing final survey data with the initial field survey dataset and an interim user survey conducted with subscribers through SMS. This evaluation found that the information deficit identified at the project outset was significantly decreased, both in terms of how well informed residents reported being as well as the delays they experienced in receiving information. Women of all ages, who were initially overrepresented in the group of respondents reporting low access to information, benefited the most from Una Hakika as the nature of the input and output mechanisms circumvented barriers such as literacy or social structures which previously hindered their ability to gather information. Lastly, respondents reported feeling that Una Hakika had decreased intercommunal tensions, prepared them for future crises, and served them honestly and fairly. As a result, Una Hakika was rated as one of the most trustworthy sources of information for residents of the Tana Delta, ranked behind only radio and television.
The Sentinel Project has concluded that Phase 1 of the Una Hakika initiative was both a research and an impact success, citing the tremendous amount of data and research gathered during the pilot phase along with the practical impacts made on the communities of the Tana Delta. Misinformation management is a nascent field which requires further research and refinement of tools within new contexts. Through these developments, the value of such practices can be demonstrated not only within the Tana Delta or cases of intercommunal conflict but internationally and in other fields which struggle to deal with misinformation, from public health to disaster response. It is with this potential in mind that the Sentinel Project has begun to deploy the Una Hakika model in new regions such as Burma (Myanmar) while aiming to launch a second phase of the Tana Delta initiative and expand widely the program within Kenya.