Keeping the Peace Via Text

US News & World Report

In Kenya, where elections can lead to violence, advocates pin their hopes on technology. 

MPEKETONI, Kenya —Two dozen women have arranged themselves in a circle under the shade of a cashew tree, some with infants in their arms and toddlers at their feet. The afternoon meeting in this small farming community near Mpeketoni is not out of the ordinary. What's new is the handful of young people from the city who have come to tell the villagers about a text messaging-based phone app designed to prevent massacres.

"Do you know the meaning of rumors?" asks Margaret Wainaina in Kiswahili, but the women have yet to warm up to questions. "It's when you don't know if something is true or not," she says, receiving steady head nods in response. "If you hear something, before you go tell your neighbor, check with us."

Wainaina is a project coordinator for Una Hakika, an initiative from the Canadian nonprofit The Sentinel Project, an anti-genocide effort. In the regional language Kiswahili, "Una hakika?" means "Are you sure?" and the goal is to squash disinformation that can lead to conflict, especially in the lead-up to Kenya's hotly contested general election on August 8.

Ethnic violence following the 2007 general election left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead and more than half a million displaced. The following general election in 2013was relatively calm, but ethnic and political vitriol found its way to social media platforms as hate speech. Experts are divided on whether the upcoming election will set off another crisis, but many believe the stakes are too high to ignore.

To prevent violence, Una Hakika and other "peace-tech" organizations are leveraging technology to function as election monitors, fact-checkers and early warning systems.

Out of the eight presidential candidates, only two have enough supporters to vie for the highest office in Kenya – sitting President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Tens of thousands of candidates are simultaneously running for gubernatorial, senatorial, parliamentary and county seats, making this a very contested election.

While the two leading presidential candidates and those in their coalitions have suggested that economic and security policies will drive the election, observers say that Kenyan politics today is no less tribal, or divisive, than in previous elections. With news earlier this week that an election official was found tortured and killed, tensions are growing.

Political rumors that play on grievances and fears can spread quickly and create tensions, often along ethnic lines – a core problem peace-tech organizations are trying to combat.

"The president announced that he will evict Tana River residents once re-elected," a subscriber texted to Una Hakika in May, referencing a region rife with land conflicts and tribal tensions.

"Confirmed false," the organization replied.

Political rumors in Kenya are more likely to be misinformation than in other countries where Una Hakika operates, with some stories "completely fabricated," says Drew Boyd, director of operations at The Sentinel Project. According to the website's metrics, 34 percent of reports from Kenyan users were determined probably false or confirmed false. For comparison, Una Hakika's spinoff in the Democratic Republic of Congo found just 3 percent of their reports were probably false.

The peace-tech industry has found an ideal laboratory in Kenya.

PeaceTech Lab, a project that launched out of the United States Institute of Peace, has subscribed 175,000 Kenyans to its platform, most of them in the five counties that saw the worst violence in 2007. During the upcoming election, the organization will receive messages about threats on its own platform and follow a process similar to Una Hakika's to respond. It will also use collected data to build predictive analytics and study the dynamics of conflict, including hate speech on social media.

"Peace building previously relied on governments and multilateral organizations to support all conflict work. But now market opportunities are in places where there is conflict," says Nancy Payne, vice president at PeaceTech Lab. "It's the perfect storm of commerce and market opportunity, and also it's just easier to communicate."

Kenya has a long history of leveraging technology to respond to social needs.

During the big post-election crisis of 2007, coders in Nairobi created a crowdsourced crisis mapping platform that tracked violence using mobile phone technology. That's how Ushahidi, Kenya's largest startup company, and the country's booming tech startup industry were born.

When Kenyans lined up to vote in 2013, Ushahidi, its partners and volunteers were in the election situation room, fielding thousands of messages. One message reported that young men carrying machetes were congregating around a polling station in Kenya's Nakuru County. After on-the-ground observers verified the facts, Ushahidi notified a government partner, which informed local police. Just 15 minutes elapsed before two trucks with police arrived at the polling station, says Monica Nthiga, a lab manager at Ushahidi.

This year, the company has expanded its partnerships and collaborations – which include Una Hakika and PeaceTech Labs – and scaled up its technical scope by incorporating a Facebook Bot and integrating video and image support, according to Nthiga.

"There's a lot of innovation and new technology, but a huge chunk of field-based work actually involves low-cost tech that is ready and accessible," says Payne.

The women under the cashew tree near Mpeketoni don't have smartphones, but like an estimated 90 percent of Kenyans, most do have mobile phones that can send and receive text messages.

After Wainaina's presentation, Agnes Kiema, a 56-year-old widow, says she has every intention of texting Una Hakika questions because there are too many stories that can pit communities and tribes against each other. And those stories, she says, tend to increase around elections.

Corrected on Aug. 3, 2017: An original version of this article misstated Wainaina's title and information about Una Hakika's beginnings.

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