Social media and the fear of terrorism

This week I was very fortunate to be on a panel this week sponsored by the National Capital (Ottawa) branch of the Canadian International Council (CIC) with Ben Rowswell and Dr. Stephanie Carvin of Carleton University entitled ‘From Blogs to Books to Software’.  Mr. Rowswell gave an outstanding talk on how social media is changing the way we both consume and create information and how the democratisation of news has altered how we perceive events in real time.  No longer is it necessary to wait for major news networks or publishers to give us updates on what is happening: anyone with a cellphone can become the medium.  This is clearly a very good development in many ways. It also has its downside as I will illustrate today.

On Friday (yesterday) Twitter lit up with reports of an incident at the Oxford Circus Tube station in London.   There were tweets from the Metropolitan Police that gunshots had been heard and a flurry of posts about a possible terrorist attack unfolding.  Not surprisingly, panic ensued and in the end 16 people were hurt fleeing what many believed to be a very dangerous situation.

Except that there was no terrorist attack.

What really happened was that there was an unspecified ‘altercation’ between two men: no guns were discharged.  Police still want to talk to the men but it is clearly obvious that the reaction of people in the area, in part undoubtedly due to what was being posted on social media, was over the top, exaggerated, and likely unnecessary.  Here, the immediacy of information was a hindrance, not a help.

It gets worse.  Tommy Robinson, former head of the extreme right English Defence League (EDL), tweeted “how long until we find out that today’s attack in Oxford Circus was by a Muslim who was again known to our security services”.   I am not making this up.   A Tweet of this nature is not just irresponsible it is dangerous.  Given the following that a radical like Mr. Robinson likely has, it would not be unreasonable to presume that some would act on this information and target the next ‘Muslim-looking’ person they came across for revenge.

In the end, everyone who put out messages that purported to be updates to what was transpiring or who chose to retweet or repost information they had received were wrong.  While it is not that surprising that many do associate the UK with terrorism – after all security services in England announce regularly they have disrupted an attack and terrorist incidents do happen (and yes, Mr. Robinson, some terrorists were on the MI5 radar) – it is nevertheless still true that even there attacks are rare.  The flurry of social media activity in and around Oxford Circus served only to cause panic.

The problem with a lot of what we see online is that it is immediate and unfiltered.  This is great when news is breaking and we want to stay informed.  But it suffers from a major weakness: it is the equivalent to what I call ‘instant analysis’.  Opinion is shared without the benefit of thought or deliberation.  It is available when very little is actually ‘known’.  People push out what they believe to be true (or just tweet for the hell of it) and do not wait for confirmation or corroboration.  It is one thing to post a crazy cat video: it is quite another to claim that a terrorist attack has just occurred and that a ‘brown man’ was likely responsible.

As Mr. Rowswell noted there is no doubt that Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution and the Arab Spring were defined in many ways by social media and grassroots participation in a world-altering event.  This indeed demonstrates the power of the Internet and the ability of the little guy to make a difference.  As with all things in life, however, there is good and bad.  The mistakes made yesterday in labelling the incident at Oxford Circus an act of terrorism is a very good example of the latter.  We already have enough – nay, too much – terrorism to deal with.  Let’s not create more where it is absent.  Maybe we need to sacrifice some immediacy in the interests of being right.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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