The full story surrounding the recent attacks at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi will take weeks, months and maybe even years to be fully written. The flurry of international media attention in the immediate aftermath of the attacks continues today, with seemingly more questions arising than answers provided as the days go on. What is the actual number of those who were killed or injured during the attack? Did a lack of army leadership and the combined response of private security agents as well as elite Kenyan police forces prolong the situation? Did top Kenyan intelligence officials have warnings that a terrorist attack of this nature could occur?
Advances in modern technology over the course of the last decade, exacerbated by forces of globalization, have led to significant changes in the way that terrorist activity is perpetrated, investigated and reported. Social media has reached unparalleled heights in its penetration in the lives of billions of people around the world.
The Westgate attacks have brought this penetration into sharp focus. During and after the attacks, both Kenyan authorities and Al-Shabab militants have taken to social media to broadcast their views on the attacks, perhaps most successfully and forcefully on Twitter. At the time of writing, the #Westgate hashtag had hundreds of tweets in the last hour alone.
The Al-Shabab twitter presence had begun long before the horrific events in Nairobi. The group had reportedly been making attempts to use English-language Twitter accounts to broadcast its message to the world for months. Whilst Twitter has stifled these attempts by shutting down accounts associated with the group, accounts associated with Al-Shabab have managed to repeatedly re-emerge under newly named accounts and post messages over the course of the siege.
Similarly, the Kenyan authorities took to twitter as a means to provide information about the situation. The account of David Kimaiyo, the Inspector General of Kenya’s National Police Service, was awash with posts over the course of the last week. These included not only directions to the public and operational communications but also opinions from citizens pertaining to the utility of twitter in crisis situations:
Wrote IG Kimaiyo (@IGkimaiyo): “Provide us with vehicle details and action will be taken immediately”
Wrote Jeffrey Roque (@kbarrak): “It’s easier to tweet from hijacked matatu/bus than 2 call 4 assistance. @PoliceKE should have a 24HR twitter response”
Wrote Litigator (@murigikamande): “The quick response by @policeke last night in rescuing @Linuskaikai underlines the importance of social media in security sector"
This begs the question: If the Kenya attacks illustrate the existence of what many have argued for years is a new digital frontier for terrorism and crisis management, what are the main benefits and disadvantages of social media such as Twitter having such an embedded role in crisis situations?
The immediate and (perhaps) most obvious benefit that many may point to of this new increased role for social media is the dissemination of crucial information in times of crises. Some of the aforementioned tweets point to this benefit, but it comes with a caveat. Real-time information can be useful, but it can quickly lose its utility if the facts it provides become contradictory or unverifiable. This has occurred in the current context of Westgate, particularly in regards to mixed messages posted by various Kenyan government ministers and security forces about the composition of the attackers and the state of the situation.
Outside of functional information sharing, social media can play a positive role in societal healing in the immediate aftermath of a crisis situation. The hashtags #WeAreOne and #WithOneAccord have been used all across Twitter to organize initiatives from blood donation exchanges to support vigils all around the world. Stories of courageous acts have been shared in text and photograph form in what has become a useful forum for shared grief and healing. Click here for an excellent story on how the #WeAreOne movement has used social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube to mobilize resources.
One notable disadvantage of this increased role of social media is the increased global platform it gives groups like Al-Shabab. The instantaneous nature of much social media means that terrorists groups can be engaged in promoting their activities before, during and after an actual attack has occurred. Even after these groups have their tweets removed, various news outlets have reported tweets that illustrate how groups like Al-Shabab can use social media platforms to further their ideological messages:
"You could have avoided all this and lived your lives with relative safety. Remove your forces from our country and peace will come #Westgate."
This feeds into the issue of radicalization that has been a growing concern for many countries in the fight against terrorism, including Canada and the UK. While Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has recently argued that there is no mass phenomenon of homegrown radicalization in Canada, there have been reports of a possible Canadian link to the attacks in Kenya, as well as to attacks in last January at a gas plant in Algeria. Similarly, in the UK, concerns about radicalization were spiked after the horrific murder of Lee Rigby, with David Cameron pledging to launch a Task Force on Tackling Extremism and Radicalisation (TERFOR).
Radicalization is a problem that has obviously pre-dated instantaneous communication of the type that we know now permeates our every day lives. However, this instantaneous communication means that messages of all kinds, including those that carry ideological weight, can be communicated faster and in more places than ever before.
It is not unfair or difficult to envision technology and social media continuing to penetrate our societies at an exponentially increasing rate and, as this occurs, attempts to combat radicalization, and terrorism more broadly, will have to continue to respond to this societal change. The new digital frontier of terrorism may not indeed be ‘new’, but the recent crisis in Kenya suggests that social media platforms such as Twitter will continue to play a crucial role in how terrorist and crisis situations are responded to, and reported on, in the future.