Amos Kiyingi, a 2021 Mandela Washington Fellow and 2018 Obama Leader for Africa, was born and raised in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Amos was born at the same time as the beginning of a rebellion in northern Uganda, propagated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
“I remember one time asking one of the elders at home about what was going on in the north because the newspapers were showing children being abducted and people dismembered. I remember being told, ‘That is the character of the people in the north. They are violent people.’” Amos said. This experience shaped Amos’ perspective, as he was disturbed by the inaccurate stereotypes circulating about people from different geographic regions and ethnic groups in Uganda.
Years later, Amos was working as an accountant when an event changed his life trajectory. In September 2009, riots erupted in Kampala among the people of Buganda who were upset that the president had prevented the King of Buganda from visiting Kayunga district. Amos saw these riots turn violent as some of the rioters targeted people from western Uganda, the president’s home.
Amos received a call from a friend stuck in the riots who was fearful for her life because people often assumed she was from western Uganda based on her appearance. As Amos drove to bring his friend to safety, the incident set off an alarm bell for him. Amos felt determined to take action to unite Ugandans and move past the stereotypes that had put his friend in danger.
To achieve this aim, Amos founded Uganda Unites in 2015. The organization helps to unite Ugandans by connecting young people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds through peace building and leadership training. This allows people to gain firsthand knowledge and understanding of who people really are, rather than basing their perceptions of others on stereotypes and impressions passed on from other people.
Amos continues to see how disinformation contributes to stereotypes and social divides in Uganda. Social media can allow for the rapid spread of disinformation when people share stories without first verifying their accuracy. These stories can lead to online disagreements and real-life confrontations and violence, which weakens social cohesion.
“People are selling stories that appeal to the [emotions] of the young people. They are getting them to join violent groups. But when you fact-check these stories, you see that they are wrong,” Amos said.
To counter disinformation, Amos believes people must tell factual stories to provide a counternarrative to the viral disinformation that can fuel hate. “To remove misinformation or disinformation, you need truth to be told. You need people to tell the stories that actually exist, the truth that happened to them, so then you can be able to build on that,” Amos said.
Amos’ recommendations for achieving these aims include:
- Encouraging people to think harder before sharing what they see on social media.
- Encouraging journalists to be mindful of the power of social media and to make sure their information is accurate before sharing it.
- Encouraging families and institutions to educate young people about how to fact-check and debunk disinformation.
Amos’ organization, Uganda Unites, is taking up this work, building reconciliation centers that provide objective information to young people about Uganda’s history and present conflicts.
Amos believes the stakes in his fight against disinformation are high. “If we do not succeed in the work we are doing, then you will have a generation of Ugandans who will never know exactly what happened in the LRA war,” he said.