Tech to Fight Rumors

A major problem in governance is the spread of misinformation and rumors. Sometimes these result from concerted campaigns by political actors, to manipulate politicians with rumors meant to make them suspicious or fearful about something.  Other times rumors are not driven by anyone, but snowball on their own.  Either way, flare-ups of rumors can wreak havoc on governance, personal security, community relations, and rule of law.

Technology can be a carrier of rumors — see the unrest in the last Kenyan elections, when rumors sent by text fed into ethnic attacks, riots, and deaths.  But there are some tech design projects which are trying to quell, staunch, and kill rumor campaigns to improve local governance and relations.  A recent report by the USIP highlighted several of these in Afghanistan.

Call-In Program: Present the Rumor to Experts & Check if Its True

“Afghanistan has evolved rapidly as a test bed for mobile-based programs at the district level that have the potential to improve both communication with government officials and transparency. This is exemplified by the work done by the UK-managed Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), which has launched two mobile-based programs that deserve careful consideration for broader rollout in other districts: a specialized call-in radio program and a crime-reporting hotline. The team has demonstrated initial success in holding local government officials accountable for their response to emergencies and crime while engaging civil society anew, and the programs make for worthwhile case studies. Radio call-in shows are not new to Afghanistan. What distinguishes this weekly program in Helmand is the expanding audience it has, thanks to its regular use of provincial official as hosts who take questions from citizens about civil administration. The show is hosted on local station Bost and is funded by the UK government, which purchases commercial airtime for the show.

“Radio is the most popular and easy-to-use communication medium in Afghanistan, but call-in programs have had varying degrees of success. This show, however, has proved to be very popular by allowing provincial officials, who are constrained in their ability to travel because of security concerns and poor transport, to speak about the state of affairs in their sectors and address the concerns of constituents. Nick Lockwood of the Helmand PRT underscored the potential of this forum when he described a program that had led a senior police chief to make a number of changes to his unit in response to listeners’ complaints about corruption among his officers. Subsequent programs hosted by other district police chiefs benefited by attracting ever bigger audiences.

In an information-starved environment like Afghanistan, where such call-in programs meet with notable success, officials should also consider using an IVR-based news system to combat the rumors that can be so dangerous. In fact, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting launched its IVR-based news service around the September 2010 elections in Afghanistan. Its Cell Phone Voter Project provided users with a toll-free number to access news stories about the elections via their phones in Dari, Pashto, and English.”

Fact Check by SMS

“MobileActive.org’s Katrin Verclas, a pioneer in mobile phone deployments, pointed to Zimbabwe, where MobileActive.org had helped to implement an information system with features that could be adapted for similar purposes. On hearing of an event or news story, users can send an SMS to the system, which then replies with a phone call that provides accurate information about the event or news. Users can listen to messages in three different languages. In the first week of its implementation in Zimbabwe, this program received over three thousand phone calls and is helping to create a more politically engaged public.”

Mobile Citizenship

“Verclas further noted that mobile telephony is likely to be used more frequently in this way to raise awareness of critical issues of citizen concern, share documented stories of localcrime and corruption, record user responses to questions and prompts, and poll citizens about local issues. Lockwood of the Helmand PRT confirmed this observation in the Afghan context, indicating plans to explore ways of promoting the agenda, activities, and meetings of the District Community Councils (DCCs) as a way of creating a sense of ownership of the DCCs among their constituent populations and instilling a demand for services. USAID also has plans to create a service called Mobile Khabar (khabar means “news” in Dari and Pashto) to use mobile phones as a delivery system for news and information.

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