Community Engagement Mobile Security Social Media

Bluetooth is the Facebook of Central African Republic

[Cross posted from the Internews Centre for Innovation & Learning website]

It has been 2 years since I have been in Bangui. It is exactly how I remembered it: dusty, noisy, chaotic and fascinating.  On the way from the airport to the home/office I am surprised by how the recent events seem not to have changed the look of this city. Sylvain, our country director, reads my mind “Today is a good day, it looks like it is quite. But not all days are like this”.

I look for sights of the recent clashes in between the Seleka and the anti-Balaka..I can’t find any. I only notice that the place where I was used to go get roasted meet back in 2012 is now closed. Later on in the day Jonathan, our resident journalism trainer, will explain to me “There is a food crisis coming – beef meat is not available anymore – the Muslims have historically been the one breeding animals but now they have been pushed out of the country or are too scared to leave their houses, so there is no beef meet available anymore. There are already shortages of meet in some cities in the north and more is about to come. Since beef is not available anymore now, also the other meet is becoming more pricy and the local population have been over hunting bush meat, so that one is getting shorter and shorter.”

It is the end of my first day in Bangui and in the dark of my room I have a lot of things to think about. I loved this place since the first day I came here in 2011. And I thought there was nothing worst than CAR. Now, I can’t stop thinking that this place got worst than I thought it would have been possible, while I hear gun shoots in the background and a helicopter is flying over the house.

I could use this space here to explain what lead to this, but I am not sure I have the answer to be honest. I know it is not about religion, this is for sure, but I am not sure I know what this is all about. I will leave analysts and experts to explain what this conflict it is all about. I will focus on what I am here for: supporting local journalists to give people the information they need to make really informed decisions, and possibly to lead to a reconciliation process that is based dialogue and not imposed by a far distant “international law” that means nothing to the people living in CAR.

As it is always on my first day of mission, today was the day of questions. I believe that there are no experts when it comes to information systems, because by the time you become an expert the situation on the ground is changed already and your expertise is of no use. So the real expertise becomes asking questions and challenge all your assumptions. Only if you do that you can understand what it is gong on.

One of the things that I always tell people that ask me about technology and ICT4D in Central African Republic is that CAR has a mobile coverage of 30% and an Internet penetration of 0. 1%. This is why Internews in the country is working mainly with radios – radio is without any doubts the most widespread mean of communication in the country. Even now, when more than 50% of the radio stations have been looted or destroyed. So what’s about ICT4D?

On the way from the airport Sylvain tells me “There is something interesting happening – people are taking videos of the massacres and the killings with their phones and they share it”. My skeptical me start thinking “How do they share it? And how many people can afford a phone here?”

When I get to the office I immediately start chatting with T. the manager of our local partner organization and a very good local journalist. I ask him what phone he has – and he takes out of his pocket a new Samsung Galaxy 5. I ask him where he bought that. He smiles and says – “We may have no meat, but we have phones.”

Then he disappears only to re-appear 5 minutes later with 4 different phones. The first one iss a fake blackberry and it costs 15,000 CF, almost 32$. It also allows you to watch TV – all without a data plan. The rest of the phones are all phones around 12,000 CF, 24$. They all have 2 things in common: they have a camera to take pictures and to make videos, and they all have Bluetooth.

I spend my lunch chatting with Jonathan about the meaning of this. Basically people take videos and pictures of the massacres and the killing happening in their areas – and share them in between each other using Bluetooth, or sometimes using memory cards. This is a completely closed and untapped information system that we still need to figure out. You get in the circle of information only if you are part of it already.

This got me thinking about the concept of homophily as it was explained by Ethan Zuckerman in the PeaceTech conference in Boston in 2014. In his closing remarks Zuckerman talked about how social networks are becoming vehicle for less dialogue and mutual understanding rather than the contrary, because of their complete reliance on the concept of homophily.

This paper summarize it well:

“The homophily principle [translates into the fact that] people’s personal networks are homogeneous with regard to many sociodemographic, behavioral, and intrapersonal characteristics. Homophily limits people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience. Homophily in race and ethnicity creates the strongest divides in our personal environments, with age, religion, education, occupation, and gender following in roughly that order. Geographic propinquity, families, organizations, and isomorphic positions in social systems all create contexts in which homophilous relations form. Ties between non-similar individuals also dissolve at a higher rate, which sets the stage for the formation of niches (localized positions) within social space.”

Basically Bluetooth is the Facebook of CAR right now, where closed information systems are created, systems that can function without Internet and still diffuse information that appeal to people sharing the same values – or in this case, sharing the same fears and maybe also hatred. But the real question is “What can we do?” How can we enter those closed and polarized information systems, if we are not even part of it? How can we create systems that prevent or fight against this new form of hate speech – because this is what it is, in the end – while we are not even sure that people really know what they are seeing – it is the Seleka killing the anti-Balaka or the contrary? Or it is just mob violence? It is used to fuel more violence, to show victory or to increase fear? How can we use the same system to fight against it?

Well as I said, this is the day of questions – not of answers, so you have to be patient with me – I really do not have the answer to this. But this all system reminded me of the use of What’s App during the Westgate attack in Kenya, something I blogged about here. Basically those closed systems offer a lot of advantages for people that want to use them to spread rumors or false information:

1) they are closed systems and rely on peer to peer trust – I trust you and therefore I trust what you are giving me – which allows for the primary source to become completely irrelevant to the reliability of the information, because the trust is transferred to others;

2) it allows for the information to spread fast because it is free and relies on homiphily;

3) it does prevent any sorts of cross-verification to happen: only people that are inclined to trust the information will receive it and they only share it with others that have their same values, so the likelihood of someone within the system to doubt the information declines considerably.

What this all system is making me realize is that technology is not only democratizing information but it is also “ghettoing” it, confining it into small areas that we cannot reach it that easily anymore, therefore enabling the creation of closer systems, rather than open one.  I am not advocating at all for a pessimistic “alarmist” approach, but I am wondering, what can we learn from it? How can we investigate and understand those new systems and enter into it, so that our approach to information is truly “global”?

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