Countering rumours and misinformation with the Sentinel Project
Words by Christopher Tuckwood and Raashi Saxena • Jun 28 2022
This article is written by one of Code for All’s newest Affiliate Members, the Sentinel Project, a Canadian non-profit that assists communities threatened by mass atrocities worldwide through direct cooperation with the people in harm’s way and the innovative use of technology.
The issue of misinformation
Rumours and misinformation often contribute significantly to an atmosphere of fear, distrust, and hatred, which can escalate conflict and complicate humanitarian responses. In addition to organic rumours and false information that arise as people try to make sense of uncertain situations, both state and non-state actors frequently spread disinformation to help them take advantage of chaos and further their objectives at the expense of the people who must cope with conflict every day.
Misinformation can be divided into several elements including the spreading of false information, the misrepresentation of factual information, and the denial of factual information. It is therefore vital for the individuals and communities in harm’s way to have access to a reliable source of verified and accurate information, tools to undertake their own verification efforts, and the capacity to counter future misinformation.
All of these elements contribute to enhancing communal resilience and helping individuals effectively navigate dangerous situations and overcome the serious challenges of living in conflict zones, such as knowing what threats are real, what areas are safe, and how to access humanitarian aid.
What the Sentinel Project is doing about it
Misinformation management is a major part of the work done by the Sentinel Project, which was established in 2008 with the mission of assisting communities threatened by mass atrocities worldwide through direct cooperation with the people in harm’s way and the innovative use of technology. The Sentinel Project advocates for direct, meaningful, and ongoing engagement with the largest possible number of people in affected communities.
These efforts place a special focus on consulting with a wide range of people on the ground who represent as many demographic groups as possible while also reducing barriers to participation. Diverse participation is critical for the success of the Sentinel Project’s work, which is why the organisation always aims to reach people from various ethnic, racial, religious, gender, and socioeconomic groups. In practice, this means recruiting local teams and spending a significant amount of time consulting with participants and beneficiaries in order to understand their needs and concerns.
Projects can take different forms in different contexts because they are based on first understanding the specific drivers of violence risk in a given situation. From there, we work backwards to determine the approaches that can reduce those risks, and the tools that are available and appropriate for supporting them. In addition to misinformation management, the Sentinel Project has also worked on things like monitoring online hate speech, exploring the use of geospatial technology to document atrocities, and developing localised early warning systems.
Get to know the projects
The Sentinel Project’s misinformation management work involves the creation of interactive mobile phone-based information services that engage members of the public in monitoring, verifying, and countering the spread of harmful rumours and misinformation that contribute to conflict and violence. These systems ideally help to prevent violence, but can also mitigate its impact when it does happen by improving situational awareness for members of the public and helping them to navigate dangerous situations.
This work, started with the Una Hakika (Swahili for “Are you sure?”) project in Kenya, has served as the model for similar work being done in several other countries. The Una Hakika model increases communal resilience against misinformation by improving access to accurate information from a neutral, trusted source while also encouraging a culture of information literacy and critical thinking. The overall misinformation management process can be summarised in the following three steps:
(1) Rumour reporting – Subscribers report rumours through various channels including SMS, a mobile application, social media, a project website, and a network of trained community volunteers.
(2) Verification – Reports are investigated by project staff members together with the volunteer network and trusted key stakeholders.
(3) Counter-messaging – Once a given rumour has been verified as true or false, the facts are then reported back to the affected communities in a targeted manner which is designed to reduce tensions.
The central component of this model is the Sentinel Project’s purpose-built WikiRumours software that enables geographically distributed teams to manage the process of collaboratively mapping and verifying instances of rumours and misinformation while also building up an open dataset which is publicly accessible for other stakeholders (e.g. NGOs, researchers, government agencies) to employ. Beyond WikiRumours, the Sentinel Project team always determines the most accessible and trusted forms of communication used by the people living in a project area.
These forms of communication become the input and output channels through which people can report rumours and receive verified information. They can include a wide range of means such as SMS (i.e. text messaging), voice calls, social media, chat applications, a dedicated mobile application, two-way radios, asynchronous reporting through dedicated devices, and a network of trained volunteers called community ambassadors.
The Una Hakika model is flexible in terms of how locally-appropriate elements are combined to support its implementation in new contexts. While the basic overall process of participatory rumour monitoring, verification, and counter-messaging always remains the same, each implementation context requires new approaches in terms of identifying elements, such as the most relevant geographical units for targeting the project, the most effective and accessible channels for communicating with the beneficiary population, and the appropriate trusted stakeholders to engage during verification and counter-messaging.
These locally-specific approaches are developed during the inception stage of a given project with inputs from individuals and organisations that have deep local expertise alongside engagements with members of the general public in order to better understand the local conflict information landscape, especially with regard to how people receive, think about, and share information. This approach has enabled the Sentinel Project to build upon its initial work in Kenya to work on similar issues in countries such as Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and South Sudan.