Internews Center for Innovation & Learning

Internews Center for Innovation & Learning
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Westgate attack and communication with communities: when trust is lost

On 21 September 2013, unidentified gunmen attacked the upscale Westgate shopping mallin Nairobi, Kenya. The attack, which lasted until 24 September, resulted in at least 72 deaths, including 61 civilians, 6 Kenyan soldiers, and 5 attackers. The attackers held hostages and later engaged in gun battles with Kenyan security forces. Over 200 people were reportedly wounded in the mass shooting.” (via Wikipedia)

I lived in Kenya for almost 3 years and have been going regularly to Westgate mall, especially on Saturdays and Sundays for a great brunch at Art Cafe. When the attacked begin, I did what almost everyone I knew from Kenya started to do: calling and writing to all my Kenyan friends and expat friends living in Kenya to make sure they were all ok. Luckily, mobile network is really good in Kenya and I managed to reach all my friends in the first couple of hours from the initial attack.

It is no surprise to me that the first information about Westgate came out from Twitter. The Twitter community in Kenya is huge and Kenyans enjoy a fairly cheap mobile internet connection and cheap smart phones. This is first tweet about the attack found by the iHub Research and posted in this very interesting reconstruction of the stream of information from Twitter in the first 12 minutes of the attack:

In terms of media, the first (local) media house to tweet about the incident was K24 TV at 1.11PM , 33 minutes and 17 seconds after the first tweet, advising people to steer clear of the mall, based on a lead shared by one of their journalists. Following that tweet the Red Cross, Citizens Tv, Associated Press and others started reporting information about the possible attack.

People inside Westgate started tweeting, according to the iHub Research reconstruction, around 12:47 asking the Police and the Red Cross for help. It is only 3 minutes later that a retweet tagging the Inspector General is asking one of the first tweeters within the mall if they are ok (The Inspector General responds directly informing that police are at the scene approximately 32 minutes later). Another tweet asking #KoT what’s happening is cc’d to Westgate’s security management company (Securex East Africa responds approximately 5 minutes later and informs that their team is on the ground).

The Innovation Center for Research and Learning is particularly interested in looking at the amount of information provided to the population during the attack and the relationship between the authorities (government), NGOs and other organizations (like the Red Cross), local media and international media and the population and how this information was received and considered satisfactory.

What in fact we think can be useful for us is to learn what could have been done better in terms of communication with affected communities and how rumors and incertitude, due to misinformation, could be avoided in the future.

I am just at the very beginning of this process and, while looking at possible partners to work with in the analysts of the tweets, I am also very interested in what had been happening outside the Twitter sphere.

One of the reasons why I am starting to be interested in this dynamic is that, as a “watcher from outside” of the situation (and therefore using Twitter as a way to keep myself up to date on what was going on), I noticed an interesting phenomenon that I would like to confirm (or not) with actual data. My impression is in fact that in the first 2 days of the attack, a huge attention was put on Twitter into “supporting” the police and the authorities and a great deal of confidence was put into their actions and their management of the situation. Along with this sentiment, I noticed a great emphasis on the “unity” of Kenyans in front of this tragedy, expressed very clearly in the widespread use of the Twitter hashtag #weareone.

However while the situation was unfolding, another sentiment started emerging from social media: a sense of frustration for not being able to understand what was really going on. While already on September 22, in the evening the Police announced a final operation to free the hostages and get control over the mall, information started becoming confusing and people started to make speculations about the actual situation.

This is when the offline rumors started spreading, or at least when I got the first message from a Kenyan friend on my cell phone (note: I was in Italy at the moment).

At 10:52pm (GMT+2 time) I got the first Whatsup message from Kenya: “ If you know anyone staying near Westgate tell them to move not post on social media, message them privately”. At this point I got very suspicious and went online to discover that there was no information about this, or no warning of any sort. So I messaged back my friend in Kenya and asked him to give me more details, and especially asking for a source.

My friend sent me the complete message he had received, telling me that he had received it from different people. This was the original message:

"The bad news keeps coming – Inside Info – attackers are demanding Kenyans troops out of Somalia otherwise they will kill 30 remaining hostages. Hostages are in the cinema. They are getting hostages charge their phones so they tell government to meet demands.”

My friend also sent me another message he got: “An intel guy, who is communicating with a military consultant, who is inside Westgate as we speak says that the terrorists are in Barclays Premier with some hostages and shielded by the bullet proof glass. Other hostages are tied to the pillars in the basement with explosives. Suicide bombers have been dispatched to other 4 unknown locations. Also confirmed that Samantha Lethwaite is the leader.”

A third message was also been sent over mobile phones: “Guys, if you know anyone near that area please tell them to move as far as possible! Apparently all of the third and fourth floor are laced with explosives and those guys may blow anytime. Hear there are over a 100 people dead in Nakumatt maybe all or some of the hostages. They are in Nakumatt basement. All hostages surrounded by bombs. So if anyone tries to do anything they will blow it. So they are planning on how to go about it. Message from Special Squad.”

The interesting factors about those rumors are several:

  1. The explicit requests not to spread those information via social media. While on one side this may make sense, on the other side this made it also impossible to deny/support any of those rumors.

  2. The fact that those rumors were all entirely false. Samantha Lethwaite was never part of the attackers' team, no hostage was ever tied up to a pillar and also not surrounded by explosive - for what we know. There is no proof that any suicide bombers was sent to attack other places in NBO.

  3. All those messages claim to come from an inside source from the official security apparatus.

What those messages made me realized was that the incertitude and the conflicting and not clear information coming in from the authorities may have been the cause of those rumors. If I got 3 messages, and I was in Italy at the time, how many others were going on in Kenya? Who started those rumors and why? Could a better communication system from the authorities have made those rumors irrelevant? How many people acted on those rumors?

The pressing idea I am having is that something changed drastically in the relationship between the Kenyan population and the “official” information provided, also supported by a very interesting initiative I found via Twitter on September 25th.

This document was created by a Kenyan person and got immediately more than 50 people adding questions to it.

The document is a collection of questions that Kenyans feels have not been answered. I urge anyone working in communication to read this document carefully as it highlights how little confidence there was/is in the immediate aftermath of the event in the official information provided and how much uncertainty is leading to more rumors and speculations rather then to more silence or understanding. One question in this document sums it all We understand keeping information controlled but deliberately misleading as though we are 12 yr olds is another thing. We support Govt fully in the incident. Reciprocate with valid info. We can take it.”

Stay tuned, we will continue following this issue and possibly come out with a more in-depth analysis of the communication channels during the Westgate attack. If you want to provide us with more information or are interested in collaborating, please feel free to reach me at