Any recent discussion on misinformation in the Global South and/or WhatsApp is incomplete without mentioning the lynchings triggered by rumours circulating on WhatsApp since 2018. While political events in the US and UK might have brought misinformation to global attention, the lynchings demonstrate just how dire its consequences can be.
With the surge in political and academic attention on online misinformation over the last three years, one is tempted to believe that we’re dealing with something entirely new, peculiar, or unprecedented. There is something to be said for the scale and speed of information dissemination on messaging platforms like WhatsApp but projects like Una Hakika highlight a clear, but less emphasized, historical trajectory of misinformation on digital media. The project is also an excellent guidepost for newer initiatives like Tattle responding to the misinformation challenge in developing countries.
What is Una Hakika?
Una Hakika (“Are you sure?” in Swahili) is an SMS-based rumour response initiative run by the Sentinel Project in Tana River County, Kenya. Tana River is “one of the least developed areas in all of Kenya, yet mobile phone and internet usage is still surprisingly high.” From a project blog post in 2014:
“Misinformation is significant in the Tana Delta because – despite high levels of mobile phone usage – it is an information-starved environment in which most people still rely on word-of-mouth to get news about the world around them… our survey has found that the majority of Tana Delta residents consider themselves to be well-informed about their own villages and national events in Kenya as a whole, but not about events in neighbouring villages (which may be only a few hundred meters away or on the other side of a river) or their county. This gap is particularly dangerous when the residents of those neighbouring villages are members of another ethnic group that is seen as hostile. This situation is why we see rumours as such a threat in the area...”
This description of misinformation in an information-starved environment looks all too familiar. We also connected with Una Hakika’s intent of opening not only the code but also the crowdsourced database of rumours. We figured that in over five years of working in the politically sensitive context of Tana Delta, the group would have discovered and conceived ways of managing the risks of operating an open source, open data, rumour response system.
Sensing a learning opportunity we reached out to John Otunga and Christopher Tuckwood at the Sentinel Project and they were gracious enough to share their time and wisdom with us. Following are some of the things we learnt during our call:
WikiRumours - The Tech Infrastructure
WikiRumours is an online platform developed by the Sentinel Project as the technical infrastructure for projects such as Una Hakika. It “is both a piece of software and an implied workflow for triaging and responding to misinformation and disinformation.”
Other than Una Hakika, WikiRumours has been used in three other projects in conflict affected regions - Congo, Myanmar, and South Sudan. While the rumours from all the four projects are collated in a common WikiRumours database, the workflows and response teams in each of these projects is regional and distinct. In effect, every project is a different instance of WikiRumours.
Importance of Local Relationships
What is amply evident from the description of WikiRumours is that community members are a critical aspect of the project workflow. Community members are responsible for sourcing and annotating content. After verification, details are passed on not only to subscribers but also to community leaders who can inform other members so that rumours may be contained within the community in time.
Una Hakika is a Tech-Enabled Project
While technology helps in sourcing and communicating content, WikiRumours is deployed in relatively small communities where different users are more likely to interact with each other in person rather than online. A lot of the work is done offline. The verification might involve physical visits; consultations with other organizations working in the area, such as the Red Cross; and speaking with different parties involved. Often truth is “in the middle” of different claims. Some stories are verified in a few minutes and others might take days.
Tactful Messaging of Verified Stories
Verification is a sensitive process. Often a rumour, such as of a hate-motivated act, might turn out to be true. The WikiRumours web interface has simple icons alongside a rumour to reflect the status of the message (confirmed true, probably false, under investigation, impossible to verify). However, communication with community members is necessarily more nuanced and the verification status of a given rumour must be sensitively communicated so as to prevent triggering of further violence.
Learning about Una Hakika was humbling for a number of reasons. For one, while lynchings and violence are extreme outcomes in the Indian context we are working in, it is a normal that Una Hakika is working against. Second, the project recognizes that the technology is secondary to the human task of sourcing, verifying, and responding to misinformation within one’s community.
There is a common trope in design thinking that designing for the extremes is designing for inclusivity. In its operation in an area of ethnic violence, Una Hakika is, explicitly or inadvertently, a misinformation management project catering to the extremes. The standards of caution and sensitivity that the project has adopted can thus serve as good benchmarks for civic interventions in misinformation.