Fighting misinformation to prevent election violence in Kenya

6 December 2021

Kenya will hold its next general election in 2022. How can the country avoid repeating past episodes of misinformation, ethnic polarization, and violence during electoral periods?

Kenya is set to hold a general election on 9 August 2022 which will see changes for all elected positions within the government, including members of parliament, senators, and the presidency. While democratic elections are usually promising, during the general elections in 1992, 1997, 2007, and 2017 the country experienced violence that killed many people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

Looking ahead to the 2022 election, many of the same underlying risk factors continue to be present while new exacerbating risk factors have now appeared. These include shifting political alliances and divisions, exploitation of socioeconomic grievances, and the prevalence of rumours and misinformation. The COVID-19 pandemic has also severely impacted Kenya’s economy and eroded progress in poverty reduction, forcing an estimated two million more Kenyans into poverty.

Fighting misinformation with technology

The Sentinel Project is a GAAMAC partner that assists communities threatened by mass atrocities worldwide through direct cooperation with the people in harm’s way and the innovative use of technology.

Fighting misinformation has been a long-running goal of the Sentinel Project’s Una Hakika initiative in Kenya, which is a mobile phone-based information service that engages the public in monitoring, verifying, and stopping the spread of harmful rumours and misinformation. The system can also function as a localized early warning system that helps people to navigate dangerous situations if violence does occur.

With the election looming, the Sentinel Project team believes that additional efforts are necessary in order to prevent violence. “We did similar work in Kenya during the 2017 election and we saw how rumours could really increase tensions and potentially lead to violence. That was a time of great fear and uncertainty for many Kenyans, which introduced new dangers, especially once violence did occur in some areas. This kind of situation is only worsened by politicians who propagate rumours and hate speech across ethnic divides,” says Sentinel Project executive director Christopher Tuckwood.

Rumours and misinformation lead to tensions and mistrust between different ethnic and political groups while hindering people’s ability to make sound decisions around the elections. Misinformation can also severely undermine trust in public institutions and the electoral process overall. In order to mitigate these risks, the Sentinel Project aims to expand Una Hakika to 15 critical counties across Kenya, including increasing public engagement on the ground and developing new partnerships to grow that geographical presence. “We need to act quickly,” warns Christopher Tuckwood, “because tensions are already building.”

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