Social media - a new frontier of counter-terrorist operations


Picture of Jon Coaffee
Jon Coaffee

Professor of Urban Geography

Jon Coaffee is Professor of Urban Geography at the University of Warwick and Director of the Resilient Cities Laboratory

Social media ‒ Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others ‒ are playing an increasingly important role in counter-terrorist operations. They are now core tools enabling the police to ask for and receive information instantaneously from citizens, and they provide an important monitoring function.

The adoption of these tools by law enforcement authorities and other security stakeholders presents a number of opportunities through which the resilience of crowded public places might be enhanced against terrorist attacks: advanced system monitoring, improved analytical capabilities, better coordinated information flow between multiple public emergency-response agencies, and better and faster communication with the public.

The police using social media during terrorist incidents also pose a number of operational questions: How do law enforcement authorities use social media in the best possible way during a terror attack? How can they effectively use crowd-sourced social media to assist live anti-terror operations and enhance the situational awareness? Can social media shift the tactical advantage from counter-terror officials to the perpetrators? And, what are the positive and negative overall effects of social media use during incidents?

Social media can be a force of good in a crisis by keeping people informed on a regular basis

Recent international experiences of responding to terrorist events have illuminated the ways in which policing practice is adapting to the new social media landscape. Attacks in Nice, Munich, Brussels and Berlin in 2016 as well as in London, Stockholm, Manchester and Barcelona in 2017 have shed light on the myriad of ways social media can be strategically utilised to aid public security. Patterns of social media usage around these incidents highlighted the vital role of a single authoritative voice – the trusted source ‒ on social media. They also showed how social media can be a force of good in a crisis by keeping people informed on a regular basis, often in several languages.

The pivotal role for police forces during a terrorist incident is to communicate clearly, simply and practically with the public, most often using Twitter and establishing a hashtag ‒ for example #LondonBridge, #Barcelona #Brussels #Breitscheidplatz ‒ so that citizens can follow developments easily and with confidence. This is further underpinned by efforts to publish the first tweet as soon as possible to establish this account as the one where verified information will be posted.

Tweets sent by the police during live operations have also commonly advised citizens to stay inside and avoid public places amidst concerns crowded areas might be attacked. For example, the Munich Police shared the following tweet during the attack in 2016: “We currently do not know where the perpetrators are. Watch out and avoid public places.”

During many other incidents worldwide this ‘stay home, stay safe message’ has been tweeted in an attempt to keep the public away from the active area. In addition to police using social media, Facebook has regularly activated its Safety Check feature so people in the affected area can let their friends and relatives know if they are safe.

Communicating with the general public using social media is vital during such incidents but it can also illuminate a critical tension on how to best cope with the live nature of these platforms. The instant exchange of information and media, for instance, video-sharing of tactical security operations during incidents or live tweeting by perpetrators during an event, is problematic.

For example, during the Sydney siege in 2014, tweets highlighting police activity served to enhance the perpetrator’s situational awareness, and hence his capacity to execute the attack. In more recent attacks in Europe, tweets have regularly been sent during the incident asking the public not to share photos and videos of police activities or other tactical information over social media.

A further and important adaptation to crisis communication is the increasing use of social media to dispel rumours

Moreover, the police are often forced to plead with social media users to show respect to the victims by not sharing photographs of them. After the attack, however, the police often use social media to ask the public to upload material for evidence gathering.

A further and important adaptation to crisis communication is the increasing use of social media to dispel rumours that can become toxic to an ongoing operation if left unchecked. The police have used social media during counter-terror operations to quash rumours by proactively intervening in discussions and conversations. In doing so, they have often been able to 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 identify the perpetrators through actively engaging with citizens on Reddit. This unfortunately led to online ‘trials’ of innocent people wrongly identified by users.

More recently, after the first shooting during the Munich incident, rumours on social media spread like digital wildfire alleging possible further attacks in other parts of the city and terrorists on the loose in the public transport system. The police were forced to spend a lot of time on social media dispelling these false claims.

What the experiences from recent terror incidents across Western Europe highlight is the need for law enforcement agencies to rapidly take into account the developments of social media, as they have added a new dimension to counter-terrorism operations. Notably, this 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 doing so, the ability of police to effectively respond to similar crisis events in the future can be considerably enhanced.

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