Monday night, a suicide bomber took the lives of at least 22 people—including an 8-year-old girl—at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. Almost instantly, images and video of the devastating attack overtook Twitter timelines and Facebook News Feeds. As natural and understandable a response to horrific events as that might be, it also threatens to amplify the chaos that terrorists intend.
Terrorists have always sought attention, and the age of social media has enabled them to find it with unprecedented breadth. They use social networks to recruit, to inspire, and to connect, but they also rely on social media bystanders—everyday, regular people—to spread the impacts of their terror further than they could themselves, and to confuse authorities with misinformation. That amplification encourages more terrorism, inspires copycats, and turns the perpetrators into martyrs. It also traumatizes the families of the murdered victims, as well as the public at large.
“In the last few years, this problem has become more acute and more complicated technically, practically, and ethically, with the acceleration of the news cycle and the advent of social media,” London School of Economics professor Charlie Beckett wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review last year, analyzing how social media and journalism amplify terrorist messaging.
The moment a bomb explodes anywhere in the world, the blast is heard around the internet. The next time it clamors through your social feeds, keep the following in mind.
“#Pray for Manchester,” a tweet from Monday read, including a cell phone video of the moment the apparent suicide bomb went off, showing people terrified, running for their lives: 594 people had retweeted it at press time. Major media outlets played videos like that one and others from the scene on a loop in the hours after the attack. Tuesday morning, they still were, despite the images providing no new information.
When a terrorist attacks, the world responds by spreading the horror far and wide. “We’re programmed now that, anytime anything happens, somebody has their phone and somebody is filming it,” says Steven Stalinksy of the Middle East Research Institute, who studies how terrorists use the internet.
The motivation for terrorism is not mere murder or maiming but the incitement of deep fear in an entire community or nation. To achieve that aim, terrorists need the media’s help. That applies both to the news networks, which often play the same scene on loop despite having no new information, and to social media, where people rush to express their concern and outrage. Along the way, misinformation and fear spreads like wildfire. That’s the playbook for these events now, and research suggests it gives terrorists exactly what they want.
“Public mass-murder terrorism—religious-inspired to white-supremacist to school shootings—has a media strategy. Media keeps cooperating,” author and researcher Zeynep Tufekci, an expert in how information spreads online, wrote on Twitter Monday night, admonishing people to not share images of dead bodies and videos of fear over and over on a loop.
This sort of amplification is a distinct problem from the issue of shutting down the accounts of terrorists themselves, which media companies like Twitter belatedly realized they need to do. People post about an attack on social media for a host of reasons, sometimes to help. Reports out of Manchester last night suggest some people used Twitter to figure out the best way to escape. Striking a balance between helping and furthering an ideological agenda, though, is the hard part.
Terrorists have always craved media attention; in April, researcher Michael Jetter, of the University of Western Australia, found that increases in mainstream media coverage of al Qaeda correlated with the likelihood of attacks the following week. And in the age of Facebook and Twitter, everyone’s the media. It’s not just journalists who must learn to responsibly cover these attention-seeking atrocities but anyone with a Twitter handle.
Not only does research suggest that media attention can drive future attacks, it can cause harm to the victims’ families and to the survivors of such attacks. On Tuesday, the UK’s National Crime Agency made a plea on Twitter for people to bear that in mind. “Don’t share pictures or video of the #manchesterexplosion on social media. Please show respect to victims and their families,” the agency tweeted. Instead, it directed people to send their images to a law enforcement site, in case anything might provide helpful information.
‘Make sure if you are going to repost something that the source is credible, number one, because a lot of hysteria happens.’ Steven Stalinksy, Middle East Research Institute
Stalinksy says there’s a message here for law enforcement, too. When the UK authorities didn’t quickly make a statement last night, people seeking information were left to rely on an online sea of gore and misinformation. Increasingly, that’s where even mainstream networks turn, too. In the decentralized media landscape of 2017, there’s a symbiosis between social and professional medias. Each chases after what the other says matters.
“The fear is that reporting of terror is becoming too sensationalist and simplistic in the digitally driven rush and that the role of professional journalism has been constrained and diminished,” wrote Beckett.