Fearing Election Turmoil, Kenyans Seek A Tech Solution Text messages spreading false rumors helped spark postelection violence in 2007. This time, monitors will keep an eye on social media and will be in touch with government officials in a bid to prevent bloodshed.

Fearing Election Turmoil, Kenyans Seek A Tech Solution

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Kenya is a week away from a presidential election that carries with it the threat of violent tribal conflict. Last time around, a disputed vote led to weeks of violence. More than a thousand people died and hundreds of thousands were displaced by the fighting. This time there are efforts to prevent another bloodbath.

NPR's Gregory Warner introduces us to three people in Nairobi who are using technology as a force for peace.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: As Alex remembers it, the text message came the morning of December 31, 2007. That was four days after a presidential election that many people in his tribe, the Kalenjin, thought was rigged. The text message said that the most powerful Kalenjin in the government, William Ruto, was killed. This wasn't true. But the rumor went viral from cell phone to cell phone.

ALEX: That was around in the morning. And by five, I was seeing people were moving with their properties, the houses were being torched so that you're just seeing smoke.

WARNER: Alex was in Kenya's Rift Valley, where gangs of youth with gas canisters and machetes attacked thousands of their ethnic rivals. Now, Alex is part of a private research project called Umati that scours social media for dangerous speech. Speech like that text message, which he says wasn't just some falsehood, it was written to incite.

ALEX: It was hate speech because whatever was being written there, on the text message, it was for people to react against certain kind of people.

WARNER: So now, when Alex or his teammates find a text or a tweet they're worried about, they report it to a network of bloggers and activists and tech geeks overseen by this guy.

DAUDI WERE: We're talking about going beyond monitoring a vote, we're calling on citizens to protect their vote.

WARNER: Daudi Were directs a project called Uchaguzi. Swahili for election. Among other things, it connects on-the-ground reports with law enforcement. It got its first test during the 2010 constitutional referendum in Kenya. A voter sent a text message to the project that said simply...

WERE: Young men congregating with machetes outside a polling station in Molo. Now, Molo is 200 kilometers away from Nairobi. Within 15 minutes of us receiving that SMS, two trucks full of policemen turned up at that polling station, acted as a deterrent, the young men went away. So what happened? What happened in those 15 minutes?

WARNER: What happened was that text message was triaged, mapped, verified with on-the-ground election officials, and then forwarded to police - all out of an air conditioned technology hub in Nairobi with "Super Mario Brothers'" posters and a foosball table.

The fact is, whatever transpires this election, it'll be under the scrutiny of a vastly more connected Kenya. In the last four years, the number of Kenyans owning cell phones climbed from eight million to more than 30, which means more cell phone cameras to catch unguarded political moments.


FERDINAND WAITITU: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: This is politician Ferdinand Waititu. He's urging a crowd in Nairobi last year to find people from the Maasai ethnic group and chase them from their homes. In the ensuing riots, several people were killed.


WARNER: Now, when this video came out on YouTube, Waititu was disciplined by his party and fired from his post. That's a sort of success for mobile monitoring. But the same politician is leading the 48 for governor of Nairobi Province.

WAITITU: (Foreign language spoken)


WARNER: Hate speech and ethnic baiting can still win votes.

WANGUI KANIARU: There are two competing facts in the narrative of Kenyan politics.

WARNER: Wangui Kaniaru is a corporate lawyer in Nairobi.

KANIARU: One is that once someone goes into a voting booth, they vote tribally. They pick a person from their ethnic group and from their ethnic community. That's the bias that we always have had historically in every election that we've ever been through as a country.

WARNER: The other fact, she says, is that Kenya as a country is more prosperous and better educated than it ever has been.

KANIARU: If the middle-class was a tribe in Kenya, it actually be the biggest tribe in this country.

WARNER: So why don't they vote as a class? She says it's because most of them don't vote at all. Her fellow Kenyan professionals, she says, have given up on government actually providing services. They hire private security guards, take their kids to private schools.

KANIARU: You have private garbage collection. And we don't recognize that that's a political problem that requires a political solution.

WARNER: She founded a website, SwingVote2013.org. It lays out some election math and why the middle-class vote, she says, could swing the outcome. She says her target audience is the million Kenyans on Facebook. And she hopes that next week, when they go to the polls, all this new Kenyan connectedness translates to actual change.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.

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