Like many others, I have been closely watching the Kenyan elections. In fact, these elections may be the most “watched” elections ever. I am not necessarily talking about observers on the ground. Digital tools, including social media outlets, have greatly enhanced remote monitoring capability, and have emerged as a major component in the Kenyan elections.
The development of these tools and the use of online networks to filter and aggregate the interweb “buzz” have had a profound effect; for human rights monitors, these tools have become integral to the ability to monitor a situation remotely.
Coupled with seemingly endless possibilities, there are invariable challenges associated with the use of these tools. On one end of the spectrum, there are challenges associated with using social media to report on fragile and complex situations when the reporter may be forced to prioritize either speed or due diligence. On the other end, there challenges associated with being the monitor – including distilling fact from fiction.
And these challenges, if not effectively tackled, could incite much worse than the wide-spread mockery generated by two tweets from a France 24 journalist.
The tweets, the investigation and the method
As part of the function of human rights watchdogs, we monitor the digital space for credible information to assist us in our early warning and documentation efforts. For example, when we come across an indication of violence or unrest, we investigate and attempt to corroborate information: which is what I did last week when I came across the following tweets from a France 24 journalist reporting an alleged situation involving “gunshots” and “dramatic images… huge crowds fall[ing] over each other to vote.”
— Stuart Norval (@stuartf24) March 4, 2013
— Stuart Norval (@stuartf24) March 4, 2013
I wanted to see if I could corroborate the incident, and what, if any, additional information could be found related to it, which would help me better understand what was actually happening. In addition to searching Twitter and YouTube, I used a few of the platforms and tools increasingly becoming important for helping to establish the validity of information coming through social media channels: Ushahidi (Kenyan elections deployment being Uchaguzi), an open source reporting platform whose creation stemmed from the ’07-’08 Kenyan; Geofeedia (search by location social media aggregator); Storyful (social media newsgathering and content validation); and Amani Kenya @108 (public reporting platform administered by the Kenyan government with the monetary assistance of UNDP-Kenya).
I was able to find, after about an hour of searching, multiple reports about long lines at the polls and delays in select openings, peaceful police presence at polling stations and a polling center gate “yet to be opened.” I also came across lots of (primarily) good-natured criticism of the tweets, plenty of which came from Kenyans, accusing the foreign media outlet of misrepresenting the situation in Kenya by reporting so dramatically about one seemingly isolated event related to unrest.
— rimbui (@rimbui) March 4, 2013
Jokes aside, what I was not able to find was sufficient enough information of “gunshots” and “huge crowds falling over each other to vote” within the parameters of my search that I felt adequate enough to corroborate the France 24 journalist’s incident report, as it appeared.
The Power of “The Crowd”
In the end, I could only say that there was a “report” of gunshots and a group of individuals appear to have broken through a gate. In that way, I can understand the process that has led to reporting on the Kenyan elections in a manner which has incited mockery.
I also remain wary of the risk of incitement as near instantaneous communications spread to more locales around the world, many with poor human rights histories.
This exercise highlights one of the recurrent challenges associated with utilizing social media outlets to report and monitor a situation during a period of time when ground events may or may not be rapidly developing (such as in Kenya): the situation is often times much more complex than 140 characters can convey, and the incorrect use of just a few words, could easily become an overflow of ingredients to an already bubbling human rights situation.
On the other hand, this report, and the quick investigation into it,highlights the immense value of trained and equipped citizen reporters;and also, the importance of listening to the people who are oftentimes the closest to the ground which certainly helps monitors filter and understand the digital noise. “The crowd” helped put the France 24 reporter’s tweets into context by identifying the misrepresentations the text conveyed and pointing out (in part by lack of reporting), this was apparently an isolated incident which did not appear to have escalated.
So we can’t forget about the possibilities here. Materializing not only because of new technological tools, but a growing movement of citizen reporters, many of whom have already done incredible work and are receiving formal trainings in areas such as utilizing social media, video and other digital tools for their human rights work. Just imagine how many more eyes are now witnessing (and reporting about) any given event, at any given time. And this, from the perspective of a human rights monitor, is one of the most powerful tools in the making.