The 2005 Referendum and 2007 election introduced Kenyans to a vile form of mass misinformation - the insidious power of hate messages.
It was the propagation of these hate-filled messages that inflamed Kenyans against each other in both instances.
To be able to prevent a repeat, we must understand why mobile telephony and the internet have become such powerful tools of incitement.
Group Action in Hate Messages
The telephone and television (old media) are one-way communication technologies that do not allow groups to be created and organised rapidly. This is because creating a group and mobilising it around a cause by using a television is not sustainable.
This is because a group has connections which have to be constantly maintained and the old media was not designed to nurture these interpersonal connections.
Mobile phones and the internet (new media) depart from the old media in that they enable near real-time two-way communication. Creating a group using your mobile phone has never been easier. Of more fundamental importance is the ease at which you can maintain connections to a group.
Having a group conversation with 500 like minded people is as easy as clicking a “Send” button in your mobile or selecting multiple e-mail addresses. The ability to ignite collective action by using new media will only increase in the future and this is the reason why hate messages were so effective in 2005 and 2007.
Investigating Hate SMS messages
SMS (Short Message Service) is a service for sending short messages of up to 160 characters to mobile devices. The transmission of SMS messages involves an SMS center (SMSC) which is responsible for forwarding the SMS messages to their destination(s).
The main duty of an SMSC is therefore to route SMS messages and regulate the process. For instance, if a recipient’s mobile phone is switched off, the SMSC is the one that stores the message and re-forwards it when the recipient’s phone becomes available. SMS centers are gradually being replaced by SMS routers that offer a more intelligent forwarding process apart from increased capacity.
When tracking SMS messages the main challenge is in the storage of these messages due to the high storage costs involved. Since it is not logical to retain these messages the other solution is to have rules that are triggered when certain conditions are met. These rules are located in sophisticated SMS routers and firewalls.
For instance, an SMS firewall/router can be programmed to filter messages from a particular origination to destination point. They can also have alarms that respond to specific content, for instance certain keywords such as kill, murder, gun etc. Another likely rule that can be implemented is where a spike in SMS traffic from a certain known political hot-zone can trigger an alarm that initiates SMS message monitoring and retention.
Once these rules are triggered it would then be possible to segregate these messages for onward investigations. It would then be easy to store and determine the details of the sender and recipient such as phone number and last known cell location.
Investigating Hate E-Mails
E-Mails (or electronic mails) are text messages sent through a computer network to a specific individual or group. These messages used to be sent from one computer to another. Nowadays the writing and transmission of these messages includes other devices for example the mobile phone and the television.
Sending hate e-mails is fraught with danger because tracing an e-mail is possible. E-mails are composed of two parts, a header and the body. An e-mail header contains information about the email’s origin for example who sent it, where it came from and the path it took. This can roughly be compared to the stamped envelope from which you can tell where a letter came from. The body of the e-mail contains the message that you read.
The header is very useful in tracking the origin and sender of an email, even if the sender might have forged various aspects of it. Since the header is a detailed log of a message’s history, investigators usually commence investigations here.
If you have a Yahoo account you can view headers of e-mails you have received by opening any e-mail in the Inbox. Scroll down to the bottom of the page. On the bottom right you will see a link titled Full Headers. Click on it once. The page will immediately rebvert to the top and you will see a list of common headers for example X-Apparently-To, Return-Path, X-Originating-IP and many others.
All these headers can assist in tracing the origin of an e-mail. X-Originating-IP, for example, indicates the IP address of the computer on which the e-mail originated. Internet Protocol (IP) address is a numerical label that is assigned to a device that is in a computer network.
Once you have an IP address, from an e-mail header, you can use various websites like LookupIP, that can indicate the service provider and location of that IP number (the sender).
Of course, much more work is needed thereafter to nail the offender but with this as a starting point it won’t be impossible to put a face behind that hate e-mail.
During this period of intense political activity, sending hate laced SMS messages and emails will be a very risky venture. The Government however needs to do more than threaten potential broadcasters of tribal hate. They should build capacity to investigate and prosecute these perpetrators. The legislative framework is now in place. What is lacking is the investigative capacity. A fully fledged High Tech/Cyber Crime Unit of the Kenya Police should be formulated and equipped to handle this nefarious form of crime.