Public outpourings on Twitter and Facebook can be all too easily manipulatedby David Patrikarakos / November 14, 2015 / Leave a comment
It’s happened again: another terrorist massacre; another spate of panic across Europe; and of course, another social media firestorm. The coordinated attacks across central Paris last night that murdered 128 people and left over 300 injured, 80 of them critically, has brought terrorism into the heart of Europe once more. Shortly after the attacks French President Francois Hollande went on national television to announce the closing of France’s borders and a national state of emergency for the first time in a decade.
Paris was aflame and so was Twitter. The attack, localised to a small geographical area, became an instant global news event—critically a rolling one. News reports, eyewitness accounts, images from the scene, even the Facebook posts of some of those taken hostage inside the theatre, all poured onto social media platforms. With their unrivalled power to aggregate and disseminate information in real time, they became the primary sources of information as events unfolded throughout a period of several hours. Traditional media couldn’t keep up.
In effect, two events happened last night: the first was a horrific attack on innocent people; the second was its distillation through global social media networks. The latter had several dominant strains, some of which had more to do with us than the attacks themselves.
The most overt trend—initially—was, understandably, the reporting of facts, as people scrambled to understand what was happening. Given the multiple nature of the attacks, information was often confused. But slowly several hashtags, notably #ParisAttacks and #ParisShootings, emerged to curate the agreed upon facts into some semblance of a reasonable though not flawless narrative. As ever, misinformation spread just as quickly as truth. For example, the erroneous claim that the State of Emergency was the first imposed since the Algerian War of Independence that ended in 1962 gained a lot of traction.
Alongside this trend however, sat several others. The first was the inevitable scramble to blame the attacks on Islamist terrorism, even before it became remotely clear who the perpetrators were. Especially once Islamic State supporters on Twitter…