How To Use Technology To Counter Rumors During Crises: Anecdotes from Kyrgyzstan

I just completed a short field mission to Kyrgyzstan with UN colleagues and I’m already looking forward to the next mission. Flipping through several dozen pages of my handwritten notes just now explains why: example after example of the astute resourcefulness and creative uses of information and communication technologies in Kyrgyzstan is inspiring. I learned heaps.

For example, one challenge that local groups faced during periods of ethnic tension and violent conflict last year was the spread of rumors, particularly via SMS. These deliberate rumors ranged from humanitarian aid being poisoned to cross border attacks carried out by a particular ethnic group. But many civil society groups were able to verify these rumors in near real-time using Skype.

When word of the conflict spread, the director of one such groups got online and invited her friends and colleagues to a dedicate Skype chat group. Within two hours, some 2,000 people across the country had joined the chat group with more knocking but the group had reached the maximum capacity allowed by Skype. (They subsequently migrated to a web-based platform to continue the real-time filtering of information from around the country).

The Skype chat was abuzz with people sharing and validating information in near real-time. When someone got wind of a rumor, they’d simply jump on Skype and ask if anyone could verify. This method proved incredibly effective. Why? Because members of this Skype group constituted a relevant, trusted and geographically distributed network. A person would only add a colleague or two to the chat if they knew who this individual was, could vouch for them and believed that they had—or could have—important information to contribute given their location and/or contacts. (This reminded me of Gmail back in the day when you only had a certain number of invites, so one tended to chose carefully how to “spend” those invites).

The degrees of separation needed to verify a rumor was close to one. In the case of the supposed border attack, one member of the chat group had a contact with the army unit guarding the border crossing in question. They called them on their cell phone and confirmed within minutes that no attack was taking place. As for the rumor about the poisoned humanitarian aid, another member of the chat found the original phone numbers from which these false SMS’s were being sent. They called a personal contact at one of the telecommunication companies and asked whether the owners of these phones were in fact texting from the place where the aid was reportedly poisoned; they weren’t. Meanwhile, another member of the chat group had himself investigated the rumor in person and confirmed that the text messages were false.

This Skype detective network proved an effective method for the early detection and response to rumors. Once a rumor was identified as such, 2,000 people could share that information with their own networks within minutes. In addition, members of this Skype group were able to ping their media contacts and have the word spread even further. In at least two cases and in two different cities, telecommunication companies also collaborated by sending out broadcast SMS to notify subscribers about the false rumors.

I wonder if this model can be further improved on and replicated. Any thoughts from iRevolution readers would be most welcome.

16 responses to “How To Use Technology To Counter Rumors During Crises: Anecdotes from Kyrgyzstan

  1. This is an early manifestation of the world brain, and one of the best near real time examples I have ever read of. The Earth Intelligence Network, a 501c3 (http://www.earth-intelligence.net) conceptualized all of this, including the use of the cell phone as a means of educating the five billion poor “one cell call at a time,” and we also found that once everyone has a cell phone, the separation is one and the ohms resistance is zero. Thank you for a superb example of where the world is headed–routing around dysfunctional governments and corrupt organizations to get it right “face to face.”

  2. spectacular example of digital tactical innovation!

  3. It of course depends of your panel.. And a private group on for eg. FriendFeed could make it too..

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  11. This is a pretty great story.

    My questions sound similar yours: How do we sustain this work over time? How can we make it have more impact? Can we professionalize the workflow without losing its vibrancy and credibility at a grassroots level?

    Presumably the next step in fact-checking is to mature into something that is more integrated and effective (like SBTF evolved out of the waves of volunteers in 2010). What does a professional fact-checkers group look like in this context? How can we ask questions that are more relevant, and how can we make the answers reach farther? Does the Standby Task Force have lessons for this kind of volunteer fact-checking teamwork model? (Does SBTF do factchecking?)

    Perhaps this is a great example of how the “global brain” is emerging “organically” but these events seem so sporadic and fleeting, it makes my technocratic head hurt, because I want to better understand the behavioral motivations so we can replicate the model and make more appropriate tools. On the other hand, maybe that just means making a better spreadsheet or skype — something that is value-neutral and let’s people do their thing.

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