Listening and responding at times of crisis

Social media is playing an increasingly key role in counter-terrorist operations before, during and after terrorist incidents. But how do law enforcement authorities best use social media before such incidents to warn and inform the public about possible threats? How can law enforcement authorities (LEAs) use crowd-sourced social media to assist live anti-terror operations and enhance their situational awareness? And, what is the overall effect of social media use during incidents? Does it shift the tactical advantage from counter-terror officials to the perpetrators?

Recent international experiences of responding to terrorist events have illuminated a range of ways in which policing practice – particularly strategic communication – is adapting to the new social media landscape. During such incidents the local police more-often-than-not become the authoritative ‘go-to’ voice to follow for accurate information and advice.

One important element of such communication is the increasing use made of social media to dispel rumours that, if left unchecked, can become toxic to an ongoing operation. Therefore, police proactively intervene in discussions and conversations and in so doing assist their own operations. But this is not without its drawbacks. For example, during the operation in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, negative outcomes resulted from the FBI’s attempts to use social media to identify the perpetrators through actively engaging with citizens on social media. This led to online ‘trials’ of innocent people who had been wrongly identified by Reddit users and starkly illuminated the dangers of do-it-yourself policing by the public.

At the same time LEAs must adapt to deal with the live feed of information from the public and the perpetrators of these crimes, e.g. the live video-sharing of tactical security operations during incidents, or attackers tweeting during an event. During the Sydney siege in 2014, tweets highlighting police activity that could be viewed online served to enhance the perpetrators’ situational awareness and hence capacity to execute the attack. Similarly, during the Westgate shopping centre attack in Nairobi in 2014 the perpetrators used Twitter to claim responsibility for, and live tweet throughout, the attack in an attempt to control the narrative of the event as it unfolded.

Last year’s attacks in Munich and Berlin illuminated the myriad of ways social media can be utilised to aid public security. During the Munich attack the local police showed how social media can be a force of good in a crisis by keeping people informed with key communications on a regular basis, in several languages. Facebook activated its Safety Check feature so people in the area could let their friends and relatives know if they are safe. Moreover, citizens became actively involved when thousands of people stranded by the emergency and unable to get home were offered shelter by local residents via Twitter hashtag #Offenetür (open door).

Tweets sent by Munich police during the live operation also advised citizens to stay inside and avoid public places amidst concerns crowded areas might be attacked.

After the first shooting, rumours spread like digital wildfire on social media of possible further attacks in other parts of the city and of terrorists on the loose in the public transport system.

However social media use was not exclusively positive, illuminating a critical tension regarding the sharing of information during a live event. During the incident the Munich police pleaded with social-media users via its Twitter account to show respect by not sharing photographs of any victims. “To all, who publish pictures of victims: STOP DOING THIS! Please show more respect! #gunfire #Munich”. Additionally tweets were sent during the incident asking the public not to share tactical information with the attackers: #Munich Police: “Please don’t put photos/videos of police activities online. Don’t assist the perpetrators. After the crisis passed, the police condemned those who had used social media to spread rumours and “play a wretched game with fear”. In contrast, after the attack the police tweeted to ask the public to upload material for evidence gathering.

Five months later when a lorry was driven at a Christmas market crowd in West Berlin a similar strategic pattern of social media activity emerged; on official police Twitter accounts people were told to stay at home and avoid the area and not to spread rumours or divulge ongoing operations through the posting of images, and then subsequently to upload social media content to aid in evidence gathering post-event. This pattern has been seen again in other incidents which have followed, in the UK most recently in the Westminster attack, the Manchester Arena bombing and London Bridge van and knife attack.

All of these cases highlight the need for law enforcement agencies to take into account social media developments which have added a new dimension to terrorist activity and created a series of implementation challenges for police forces in using social media for live counter-terrorism operations. It showcases a need to learn from practice, advance strategic frameworks for using social media and develop a clearer understanding of how social media can and cannot be used for public security purposes, in so doing enhancing the ability of policing to respond effectively to similar events in the future.

Yet the recent attacks have also led to government around the globe seeking greater control over the internet posing further challenges to LEAs. Particular focus has been given as to how the bulk monitoring of social media data can be achieved and how its analysis can be used to pinpoint specific threats, often via algorithms. Such interventions often seek the banning of encryption and tighter regulation of the internet as well as handing greater responsibility to tech giants as providers of spaces where radicalization can occur. This potentially pits those that believe the internet is, and should be seen, as an open space to access information, against government attempts to dictate what and when citizens can post. In so doing it places LEAs in a difficult position seeking information from the very same sources they are being asked to patrol.


Jon Coaffee

University of Warwick


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