Tag Archives: Human Rights 2.0

Accurate Crowdsourcing for Human Rights

This is a short video of the presentation I will be giving at the Leir Conference on The Next Generation of Human Rights. My talk focuses on the use of digital technologies to leverage the crowdsourcing and crowdfeeding of human rights information. I draw on Ushahidi’s Swift River initiative to describe how crowdsourced information can be auto-validated.

Here’s a copy of the agenda (PDF) along with more details. This Leir Conference aims to bring together world-leading human rights practitioners, advocates, and funders for discussions in an intimate setting. Three panels will be convened, with a focus on audience discussion with the panelists. The topics will include:

  1. Trends in Combating Human Rights Abuses;
  2. Human Rights 2.0: The Next Generation of Human Rights Organizations;
  3. Challenges and Opportunities of  Technology for Human Rights.

I will be on presenting on the third panel together with colleagues from Witness.org and The Diarna Project. For more details on the larger subject of my presentation, please see this blog post on peer-producing human rights.

The desired results of this conference are to allow participants to improve advocacy, funding, or operations through collaborative efforts and shared ideas in a natural setting.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Peer Producing Human Rights

Molly Land at New York Law School has written an excellent paper on peer producing human rights, which will appear in the Alberta Law Review, 2009. This is one of the best pieces of research that I have come across on the topic. I highly recommend reading her article when published.

Molly considers Wikipedia, YouTube and Witness.org in her excellent research but somewhat surprisingly does not reference Ushahidi. I thus summarize her main points below and draw on the case study of Ushahidi—particularly Swift River—to compare and contrast her analysis with my own research and experience.

Introduction

Funding for human rights monitoring and advocacy is particularly limited, which is why “amateur involvement in human rights activities has the potential to have a significant impact on the field.” At the same time, Molly recognizes that peer producing human rights may “present as many problems as it solves.”

Human rights reporting is the most professionalized activity of human rights organizations. This professionalization exists “not because of an inherent desire to control the process, but rather as a practical response to the demands of reporting-namely, the need to ensure accuracy of the information contained in the report.” The question is whether peer-produced human rights reporting can achieve the same degree of accuracy without a comparable centralized hierarchy.

Accurate documentation of human rights abuses is very important for building up a reputation as a credible human rights organization. Accuracy is also important to counter challenges by repressive regimes that question the validity of certain human rights reports. Moreover, “inaccurate reporting risks injury not only to the organization’s credibility and influence but also to those whose behalf the organization advocates.”

Control vs Participation

A successful model for peer producing human rights monitoring would represent an important leap forward in the human rights community. Such a model would enable us to process a lot more information in a timelier manner and would also “increase the extent to which ordinary individuals connect to human rights issues, thus fostering the ability of the movement to mobilize broad constituencies and influence public opinion in support of human rights.”

Increased participation is often associated with an increased risk of inaccuracy. In fact, “even the perception of unreliability can be enough to provide […] a basis for critiquing the information as invalid.” Clearly, ensuring the trustworthiness of information in any peer-reviewed project is a continuing challenge.

Wikipedia uses corrective editing as the primary mechanism to evaluate the accuracy of crowdsourced information. Molly argues that this may not work well in the human rights context because direct observation, interviews and interpretation are central to human rights research.

To this end, “if the researcher contributes this information to a collaboratively-edited report, other contributors will be unable to verify the statements because they do not have access to either the witness’s statement or the information that led the researcher to conclude it was reliable.” Even if they were able to verify statements, much of human rights reporting is interpretive, which means that even experienced human rights professionals disagree about interpretive conclusions.

Models for Peer Production

Molly presents three potential models to outline how human rights reporting and advocacy might be democratized. The first two models focus on secondary and primary information respectively, while the third proposes certification by local NGOs. Molly outlines the advantages and challenges that each model presents. Below is a summary with my critiques. I do not address the third model because as noted by Molly it is not entirely participatory.

Model 1. This approach would limit peer-production to collecting, synthesizing and verifying secondary information. Examples include “portals or spin-offs of existing portals, such as Wikipedia,” which could “allow participants to write about human rights issues but require them to rely only on sources that are verifiable […].” Accuracy challenges could be handled in the same way that Wikipedia does; namely through a “combination of collaborative editing and policies; all versions of the page are saved and it is easy for editors who notice gaming or vandalism to revert to the earlier version.”

The two central limitations of this approach are that (1) the model would be limited to a subset of available information restricted to online or print media; and (2) even limiting the subset of information might be insufficient to ensure reliability. To this end, this model might be best used to complement, not substitute, existing fact-finding efforts.

Model 2. This approach would limit the peer-production of human rights report to those with first-hand knowledge. While Molly doesn’t reference Ushahidi in her research, she does mention the possibility of using a website that would allow witnesses to report human rights abuses that they saw or experienced. Molly argues that this first-hand information on human rights violations could be particularly useful for human rights organizations that seek to “augment their capacity to collect primary information.”

This model still presents accuracy problems, however. “There would be no way to verify the information contributed and it would be easy for individuals to manipulate the system.” I don’t agree. The statement: “there would be no way to verify the information” is an exaggeration. There multiple methods that could be employed to determine the probability that the contributed information is reliable, which is the motivation behind our Swift River project at Ushahidi, which seeks to use crowdsourcing to filter human rights information.

Since Swift River deserves an entire blog post to itself, I won’t describe the project. I’d just like to mention that the Ushahidi team just spent two days brainstorming creative ways that crowdsourced information could be verified. Stay tuned for more on Swift River.

We can still address Molly’s concerns without reference to Ushahidi’s Swift River.

Individuals who wanted to spread false allegations about a particular government or group, or to falsely refute such allegations, might make multiple entries (which would therefore corroborate each other) regarding a specific incident. Once picked up by other sources, such allegations ‘may take on a life of their own.’ NGOs using such information may feel compelled to verify this information, thus undermining some of the advantages that might otherwise be provided by peer production.

Unlike Molly, I don’t see the challenge of crowdsourced human rights data as first and foremost a problem of accuracy but rather volume. Accuracy, in many instances, is a function of how many data points exist in our dataset.

To be sure, more crowdsourced information can provide an ideal basis for triangulation and validation of peer produced human rights reporting-particularly if we embrace multimedia in addition to simply text. In addition, more information allows us to use probability analysis to determine the potential reliability of incoming reports. This would not undermine the advantages of peer-production.

Of course, this method also faces some challenges since the success of triangulating crowdsourced human rights reports is dependent on volume. I’m not suggesting this is a perfect fix, but I do argue that this method will become increasingly tenable since we are only going to see more user-generated content, not less. For more on crowdsourcing and data validation, please see my previous posts here.

Molly is concerned that a website allowing peer-production based on primary information may “become nothing more than an opinion site.” However, a crowdsourcing platform like Ushahidi is not an efficient platform for interactive opinion sharing. Witnesses simply report on events, when they took place and where. Unlike blogs, the platform does not provide a way for users to comment on individual reports.

Capacity Building

Molly does raise an excellent point vis-à-vis the second model, however. The challenges of accuracy and opinion competition might be resolved by “shifting the purpose for which the information is used from identifying violations to capacity building.” As we all know, “most policy makers and members of the political elite know the facts already; what they want to know is what they should do about them.”

To this end, “the purpose of reporting in the context of capacity building is not to establish what happened, but rather to collect information about particular problems and generate solutions. As a result, the information collected is more often in the form of opinion testimony from key informants rather than the kind of primary material that needs to be verified for accuracy.”

This means that the peer produced reporting does not “purport to represent a kind of verifiable ‘truth’ about the existence or non-existence of a particular set of facts,” so the issue of “accuracy is somewhat less acute.” Molly suggests that accuracy might be further improved by “requiring participants to register and identify themselves when they post information,” which would “help minimize the risk of manipulation of the system.” Moreover, this would allow participants to view each other’s contributions and enable a contributor to build a reputation for credible contributions.

However, Molly points out that these potential solutions don’t change the fact that only those with Internet access would be able to contribute human right reports, which could “introduce significant bias considering that most victims and eyewitnesses of human rights violations are members of vulnerable populations with limited, if any, such access.” I agree with this general observation, but I’m surprised that Molly doesn’t reference the use of mobile phones (and other mobile technologies) as a way to collect testimony from individuals without access to the Internet or in inaccessible areas.

Finally, Molly is concerned that Model 2 by itself “lacks the deep participation that can help mobilize ordinary individuals to become involved in human rights advocacy.” This is increasingly problematic since “traditional  ‘naming and shaming’ may, by itself, be increasingly less effective in its ability to achieve changes state conduct regarding human rights.” So Molly rightly encourages the human rights community to “investigate ways to mobilize the public to become involved in human rights advocacy.”

In my opinion, peer produced advocacy faces the same challenges as traditional human rights advocacy. It is therefore important that the human rights community adopt a more tactical approach to human rights monitoring. At Ushahidi, for example, we’re working to add a “subscribe-to-alerts” feature, which will allow anyone to receive SMS alerts for specific locations.

P2P Human Rights

The point is to improve the situational awareness of those who find themselves at risk so they can get out of harm’s way and not become another human rights statistic. For more on tactical human rights, please see my previous blog post.

Human rights organizations that are engaged in intervening to prevent human rights violations would also benefit from subscribing to Ushahidi. More importantly, the average person on the street would have the option of intervening as well. I, for one, am optimistic about the possibility of P2P human rights protection.

Patrick Philippe Meier

New Tactics in Human Rights

I’ve been wanting to read “New Tactics in Human Rights: A Resource for Practitioners” for a while and finally found the time on the flight back from Geneva. I would definitely recommend reading New Tactics (PDF). The report combines some of my main interests: nonviolent civil resistance, tactical early warning and response, civilian protection, preparedness, technology and complex systems.

I really appreciate the group’s serious focus on tactics since most human rights organizations seem to focus more on grand strategy and advocacy—and this at the expense of tactics.

Tactical innovation is critical to the successful implementation of human rights around the globe. By expanding our thinking both tactically and strategically, the human rights community has the opportunity to be more effective.

There is often a pattern to human rights abuses—they occur in predictable places under predictable circumstances. Recognizing those patterns and disrupting them can be key to protecting human rights.

While intervention tactics are often associated with protest and resistance, some of the most dramatic successes in ending human rights abuses have resulted from negotiation and persuasion.

The report includes numerous tactics and operational examples. I summarize 5 below. I also include a brief note on self-protection and a brief conclusion.

Serbia

Tactic: Protecting arrested demonstrators by protesting outside police stations where they are being detained. This tactic was employed by the anti-Milosevic student resistance movement, Otpor, in Serbia.

Otpor put substantial time and effort into building a strong, extensive and loyal network that could be mobilized quickly. Extensive planning outlined who would call whom and exactly what each person was to do after the arrests, so that the second demonstration would follow the arrests almost instantaneously. Most contact information for the network was stored on individual members’ mobile phones, so that the police could not seize or destroy the information.

West Bank

Tactic: maintaining a physical presence at the site of potential abuse to monitor and prevent human rights violations. Machsom Watch in the West Bank uses the presence of Israeli women to protect Palestinians passing through Israeli checkpoints to ensure their rights are respected.

Monitors who witness abuses make detailed reports and publish them on their website. They invite journalists, politicians and others to join them at the checkpoints. And they wear tags that read in Arabic “No to the checkpoints!” This show of support is heartening to many Palestinians, who may not have a positive image of Israelis.

Northern Ireland

Tactic: using mobile phones to create a network of communication that can stop violence before it escalates. Like any conflict, there are people on both sides who want to prevent the escalation of violence. So the Interaction Belfast group identified leaders in each community who want to prevent violence and provided them with needed information.

During events that are likely to cause violence […] the network plans ahead to monitor key areas. Volunteers recognize that they are able to intervene most effectively in cases of ‘recreational violence’— youth seeking excitement or responding to rumors […].

When volunteers see or hear of crowds gathering [in potential areas of conflict], or hear of rumors of violence about to occur on the other side, they call their counterparts […]. Volunteers calm crowds on their own sides before the incidents become violent. Since the program began, the phone network has both prevented violence and provided communities on both sides of the interface with more accurate information when violence does occur.

Turkey

Tactic: creating a single mass expression of protest based on a simple activity that citizens can safely carry out in their own homes. This tactic was used by the “Campaign of Darkness for Light” in Turkey, which mobilized some 30 million people to flick their lights on and to protest against government corruption.

With many citiznes afraid to participate in political action, organizations needed a tactic of low personal risk that would overcome the sense of isolation that comes with fear.

Organizers initially proposed that citizens turn off their lights for one minute each night.  […]. By the second week, communities began to improvise, initiating different street actions, including banging post and pans. By the time organizers halted the action, the campaign had gone on for more than a month.

Burundi

Tactic: Using the power of the media to send targetted messages to people in a position to end abuses. In this example, journalists in Burundi used radio broadcasts to persuade key leaders to end human rights abuses occurring in hospitals. They secretely interviewed detainees and broadcast their testimonies. “The broadcasts included messages targetted to specific groups and invididuals who had the power to fix the situations.”

Self-Protection

Unfortunately, the report’s 2-page section on “Self-Care: Caring for Your Most Valuable Resource,” is not as well developed as the others. The report could have drawn more extensively from civil resistance training and digital activism. There is also much to be learned from survivor testimonies and security training manuals from field based UN-agencies operating in places like Somalia.

Conclusion

That aside, I think the New Tactics group is doing some of the most exciting research in thiearea of tactics for civilian protection for communities at risk. I highly recommend spending time on their website and browsing through the rich materials they provide.

Patrick Philippe Meier

HURIDOCS09: Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights

Lars Bromley from AAAS and I just participated in a panel on “Communicating Human Rights Information Through Technology” at the HURIDOCS conference in Geneva. I’ve been following Lars’ project on the use of Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights with great interest over the past two years and have posted several blogs on the topic here, here and here. I’ll be showcasing Lars’ work in the digital democracy course next week since the topic I’ll be leading the discussion on “Human Rights 2.0.”

Introduction

Lars uses satellite imagery to prove or monitor human rights violations. This includes looking for the follwoing:

  • Housing and infrastructure demolition and destruction;
  • New housing and infrastructure such as resulting from force relocation;
  • Natural resource extraction and defoliation;
  • Mass grave mapping.

There are five operational, high-resolution satellites in orbit. These typically have resolutions that range from 50 centimeters to one meter. Their positions can be tracked online via JSatTrak:

aaas1

There are three types of projects that can draw on satellite imagery in human rights contexts:

  1. Concise analysis of a single location;
  2. Large area surveys over long periods of time;
  3. Active monitoring using frequently acquired imagery.

Zimbabwe

Lars shared satellite imagery from two human rights projects. The first is of a farm in Zimbabwe which was destroyed as part of a voter-intimidation campaign. The picture below was taken in 2002 and cost $250 to purchase. A total of 870 structure were manually counted.

aaas2

Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

The satellite image below was taken in 2006 and cost $1,792:

aaas3

Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

Burma

The second project sought to identify burned villages in Burma. Some 70 locations of interest within Burma were compiled using information from local NGOs. The image below is of a village in Papun District taken in December 2006.

aaas41

Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

The satellite image below as taken in June 2007 after the Free Burma Rangers reported an incident of village burning in April.

aaas5

Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

Limitations

Lars is very upfront about the challenges of using satellite imagery to document and monitor human rights abuses. These include:

  • More recent satellite imagery is particularly expensive;
  • Images can take between 2 weeks to 6 months to order;
  • Competition between multiple clients for satellite images;
  • Satellite images tend to be range between 200 megabytes and 2 gigabytes;
  • Requires technical capacity;
  • Cloud interference is a pervasive issue;
  • Images are only snapshots in time;
  • Real time human rights violations have never been captured by satellite;
  • Satellites are owned by governments and companies which present ethical concerns.

Nevertheless, Lars is confident that real-time and rapid use of satellite imagery will be possible in the future.

Conclusion

Here are the key points from Lars’ presentation:

  • The field of geospatial technologies for human rights is still evolving;
  • Satellite imagery is most useful in proving destruction in remote areas;
  • Evidence from satellite imagery becomes more powerful when combined with field-data.

Patrick Philippe Meier

ISA 2009: Panel on ICTs, Human Rights, Activism and Resistance

I just chaired a very productive panel at the International Studies Association (ISA) on the impact of ICTs on human rights, political activism and resistance.

ISApanel

The panel featured the following presentations:

  • Lucía Liste Muñoz and Indra de Soysa onThe Blog vs Big Brother: Information and Communication Technologies and Human Rights, 1980-2005.
  • Fabien Miard on “Call for Power? Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism.”
  • Patrick Meier on “iRevolutions: The Impact of ICTs on Protest Frequency in Repressive Contexts.” [slideshare]

Presentations

I’ve already blogged about each of the papers individually (see links above) so what follows are points from some of the presentations that I found particularly interesting. I also include the superb feedback that our discussant Professor Dan Drezner from The Fletcher School provided along with a summary of the productive Q&A session we had.

  • Muñoz and de Soysa: Their results show that Internet access leads to increasing respect of human rights by governments. This is true of both democracies and authoritarian regimes.
  • Joshua Goldstein: The role that Safaricom (a private telecommunications company) had in seeking to prevent and/or mitigate the election violence is unprecedented. Not only did the company refuse switch of the SMS network as per the government’s request, the company also sent out broadcast SMS to call on restraint and civic behavior.

Feedback to Panelists

Dan Drezner provided the following feedback:

  • The papers were definitely panel material as they all address important issues related to ICTs that overlap in very interesting ways. So overall, this was great set of papers and presentations, and panelists ought to make sure they read and learn from each others’ papers.
  • Most of the large-N papers blatantly seek to identify a positive correlation between ICT and human rights, political activism, digital resistance, etc. A less biased way to approach the research would be to formulate the question as follows: “How do ICTs benefit the State?”
  • Patrick should expand his set of countries beyond the 22 countries.
  • The dynamic between states and society vis-a-vis repression and circumvention may be an evolutionary one based on learning behavior.
  • The papers should treat ICTs not as independent variables but as an interactive variable with factors such as unemployment. In other words, the question should be: to what extent does ICT interact with other variables that we know ought to trigger protests?
  • The studies should separate anti-foreign protests from anti-government protests.
  • The large-N analyses should include more control variables such as dummy varibales for elections and wars.
  • The studies should also seek to assess the relationship between ICTs and the magnitude of protests and not only the frequency of protests.
  • The papers do not take into account the role of the Diaspora in helping to mobilize, organize and coordinate protests.

Response to Feedback

Here I only respond the feedback relevant to my paper and presentation:

  • On the bias towards finding a statistical relationship and expanding the number of countries in my study, I disagreed with Professor Drezner. I specifically chose the 22 countries in my dataset because the regimes in these countries are actively using ICTs to censor, repress, monitor and block information. So if anything, the cards are stacked against resistance movements when it comes to these countries. Hence my not planning to expand the dataset to include additional countries. Professor Drezner agreed on both points.
  • I completely agree on the evolutionary dynamic, which I described in my dissertation proposal and which explains why I often refer to the dynamic as a cyber game of cat-and-mouse.
  • I’m not entirely sold on treating ICTs as an interactive variable but will explore this nonetheless.
  • Agreed on the suggestion that anti-foreign protests be treated seperately since these protests are often organized by repressive regimes.
  • I fully agree on adding more control variables including elections, wars and population.
  • I concur with the point made about the magnitude of protests but this information is hard to come by. More importantly, however, the dataset I’m using is based on Reuters newswires and the reason I’m using this data is because Reuters is highly unlikely to report on low-level protests but rather on protests that have a national impact. So the dataset serves as a filter for large-scale protests and hence magnitude.
  • Very good point about the diaspora.

Q&A Session

We had an excellent set of questions from the audience which prompted a rich conversation around the following topics:

  • Repressive regimes learning from one another about how to use ICTs for censorship, repression, monitoring, etc. and resistance movement learning from each other.
  • The side to first acquire and apply new technology generally gets a head start, but this prompts the other side, e.g., the State to catch up and regain the upper hand.
  • Who are the users of these technologies? Demographics, gender, age, etc, should be important factors in the study of ICTs, State and society.
  • One member of the audience was a policy maker with the British government and  wanted to know what role Western governments should  play vis-a-vis digital activism.
  • The issue of civil resistance and the intersection with digital activism came up repeatedly in the discussion. Understanding one without the other is increasingly meaningless.

Patrick Philippe Meier

ISA 2009: Digital Technologies in Kenya’s Post Election Crisis

The fourth presentation at the ISA panel that I’m chairing will feature research by Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich on the role of digital networked technologies during Kenya’s post-election violence (PDF). Blog posts on the other three presentations are available here on human rights, here on political activism and here on digital resitance.

Introduction

Josh and Juliana pose the following question: do mobile phones and the Internet promote transparency and good governance or do they promote hate speech and conflict? The authors draw on the 2007-2008 Kenyan presidential elections to assess the impact of digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, on the post-election violence.

This study is an important contribution to the scholarly research on the impact of digital technology on democracy since the majority of the existing literature is largely written through the lens of established, Western democracies. The literature thus “excludes the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggle between failed state and functioning democracy are profound.”

Case Study

Josh and Juliana draw on Kenya as a case study to assess the individual impact of mobile phones and the Internet on the post-election violence. The mobile phone is the most widely used digital application in Kenya and the rest of Africa. The low cost and ease of texting explains how quickly “hate SMS” began circulating after Kenya’s election day. Some examples of the messages texted:

Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future… we must deal with them in a way they understand… violence.

No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo’s you know… we will give you numbers to text this information.

The authors are concerned about the troubling trend of hate SMS in East Africa citing a violent icident in neighboring Uganda that was organized via SMS to protest the government’s sale of a forest to a company. As they note, “mass SMS tools are remarkably useful for organizing this type of explicit, systematic, and publicly organized campaign of mob violence.”

However, the authors also recognize that “since SMS, unlike radio, is a multi-directional tool, there is also hope that voices of moderation can make themselves heard.” They point to the response taken by Michael Joseph, the CEO of Kenya’s largest mobile phone provider Safaricom when he was asked by government officials to consider shutting down the SMS system:

Joseph convinced the government not to shut down the SMS system, and instead to allow SMS providers to send out messages of peace and calm, which Safaricom did to all nine million of its customers.

Josh and Juliana also note that tracking and identifying individuals that promote hate speech is relatively easy for governments and companies to do. “In the aftermath of the violence, contact information for over one thousand seven hundred individuals who allegedly promoted mob violence was forwarded to the Government of Kenya.” While Kenya didn’t have a law to prosecute hate SMS, the Parliament has begun to create such a law.

The Internet in Kenya was also used for predatory and civic speech. For example, “the leading Kenyan online community, Mashahada, became overwhelmed with divisive and hostile messages,” which prompted the moderators to “shut down the site, recognizing that civil discourse was rapidly becoming impossible.”

However, David Kobia, the administrator of Mashahada, decided to launch a new site a few days later explicitly centered on constructive dialogue. The site, “I Have No Tribe,” was successful in promoting a more constructive discourse and demonstrates “that one possible response to destructive speech online is to encourage constructive speech.”

Mobile phones and the Internet were combined by Ushahidi to crowdsource human rights violation during the post-election violence. The authors contend that the Ushahidi platform is “revolutionary for human rights campaigns in the way that Wikipedia is revolutionary for encyclopedias; they are tools that allow cooperation on a massive scale.” I have already blogged extensively about Ushahidi here and here so will not expand on this point other than to emphasize that Ushahidi was not used to promote hate speech.

Josh and Juliana also draw on the role of Kenya’s citizen journalists to highlight another peaceful application of digital technologies. As they note, Kenya has one of the richest blogging traditions in sub-Saharan Africa, which explains why,

Kenyan bloggers became a critical part of the conversation [when] the web traffic from within Kenya shot through the roof. The influence ballooned further when radio broadcasters began to read influential bloggers over the airwaves, helping them reach […] 95% of the Kenyan population.”

When the Government of Kenya declared a ban on live news coverage on December 30, 2007, Kenyan bloggers became indispensable in their role as citizen journalists. […] Blogs challenged the government’s version of events as they unfolded.

[…] Further, Blogs became a critical source of information for Kenyans in Nairobi and the diaspora. Rumors spread via SMS were dispelled via an online dialogue that took place on blogs and in the comments section of blogs.

Conclusion

When we talk about the ‘networked public sphere,’ we are usually referring to a Western public sphere; one that facilitates public discourse, increased transparency and positive cooperation. However, as the case study above demonstrates, the narrative is more involved when we talk about an African or Kenyan ‘networked public sphere.’ Indeed, the authors conclude that digital networked technologies catalyzed both “predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and civic behavior such as journalism and human rights campaigns.”

Several questions remain to be addressed in further research. Namely, how important is a vibrant blogosphere to promote positive applications of digital technologies in times of crises? Are networked digital technologies like Ushahidi more susceptible to positive uses than predatory uses? And finally, how does the Kenya case compare to others like the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine?

Patrick Philippe Meier

ISA 2009: Digital Technologies in Kenya’s Post Election Crisis

The fourth presentation at the ISA panel that I’m chairing will feature research by Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich on the role of digital networked technologies during Kenya’s post-election violence (PDF). Blog posts on the other three presentations are available here on human rights, here on political activism and here on digital resitance.

Introduction

Josh and Juliana pose the following question: do mobile phones and the Internet promote transparency and good governance or do they promote hate speech and conflict? The authors draw on the 2007-2008 Kenyan presidential elections to assess the impact of digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, on the post-election violence.

This study is an important contribution to the scholarly research on the impact of digital technology on democracy since the majority of the existing literature is largely written through the lens of established, Western democracies. The literature thus “excludes the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggle between failed state and functioning democracy are profound.”

Case Study

Josh and Juliana draw on Kenya as a case study to assess the individual impact of mobile phones and the Internet on the post-election violence. The mobile phone is the most widely used digital application in Kenya and the rest of Africa. The low cost and ease of texting explains how quickly “hate SMS” began circulating after Kenya’s election day. Some examples of the messages texted:

Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future… we must deal with them in a way they understand… violence.

No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo’s you know… we will give you numbers to text this information.

The authors are concerned about the troubling trend of hate SMS in East Africa citing a violent icident in neighboring Uganda that was organized via SMS to protest the government’s sale of a forest to a company. As they note, “mass SMS tools are remarkably useful for organizing this type of explicit, systematic, and publicly organized campaign of mob violence.”

However, the authors also recognize that “since SMS, unlike radio, is a multi-directional tool, there is also hope that voices of moderation can make themselves heard.” They point to the response taken by Michael Joseph, the CEO of Kenya’s largest mobile phone provider Safaricom when he was asked by government officials to consider shutting down the SMS system:

Joseph convinced the government not to shut down the SMS system, and instead to allow SMS providers to send out messages of peace and calm, which Safaricom did to all nine million of its customers.

Josh and Juliana also note that tracking and identifying individuals that promote hate speech is relatively easy for governments and companies to do. “In the aftermath of the violence, contact information for over one thousand seven hundred individuals who allegedly promoted mob violence was forwarded to the Government of Kenya.” While Kenya didn’t have a law to prosecute hate SMS, the Parliament has begun to create such a law.

The Internet in Kenya was also used for predatory and civic speech. For example, “the leading Kenyan online community, Mashahada, became overwhelmed with divisive and hostile messages,” which prompted the moderators to “shut down the site, recognizing that civil discourse was rapidly becoming impossible.”

However, David Kobia, the administrator of Mashahada, decided to launch a new site a few days later explicitly centered on constructive dialogue. The site, “I Have No Tribe,” was successful in promoting a more constructive discourse and demonstrates “that one possible response to destructive speech online is to encourage constructive speech.”

Mobile phones and the Internet were combined by Ushahidi to crowdsource human rights violation during the post-election violence. The authors contend that the Ushahidi platform is “revolutionary for human rights campaigns in the way that Wikipedia is revolutionary for encyclopedias; they are tools that allow cooperation on a massive scale.” I have already blogged extensively about Ushahidi here and here so will not expand on this point other than to emphasize that Ushahidi was not used to promote hate speech.

Josh and Juliana also draw on the role of Kenya’s citizen journalists to highlight another peaceful application of digital technologies. As they note, Kenya has one of the richest blogging traditions in sub-Saharan Africa, which explains why,

Kenyan bloggers became a critical part of the conversation [when] the web traffic from within Kenya shot through the roof. The influence ballooned further when radio broadcasters began to read influential bloggers over the airwaves, helping them reach […] 95% of the Kenyan population.”

When the Government of Kenya declared a ban on live news coverage on December 30, 2007, Kenyan bloggers became indispensable in their role as citizen journalists. […] Blogs challenged the government’s version of events as they unfolded.

[…] Further, Blogs became a critical source of information for Kenyans in Nairobi and the diaspora. Rumors spread via SMS were dispelled via an online dialogue that took place on blogs and in the comments section of blogs.

Conclusion

When we talk about the ‘networked public sphere,’ we are usually referring to a Western public sphere; one that facilitates public discourse, increased transparency and positive cooperation. However, as the case study above demonstrates, the narrative is more involved when we talk about an African or Kenyan ‘networked public sphere.’ Indeed, the authors conclude that digital networked technologies catalyzed both “predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and civic behavior such as journalism and human rights campaigns.”

Several questions remain to be addressed in further research. Namely, how important is a vibrant blogosphere to promote positive applications of digital technologies in times of crises? Are networked digital technologies like Ushahidi more susceptible to positive uses than predatory uses? And finally, how does the Kenya case compare to others like the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine?

Patrick Philippe Meier