Sensationalist headlines and graphic tweets receive the most clicks. But are they appropriate when covering tragedy, or do they play into terrorists' hands?by Joris Luyendijk / May 30, 2017 / Leave a comment
As the west comes to terms with what must be the cruelest terrorist attack in recent memory—specifically targeting children and teenage girls—we need to face up to a set of painful truths and dilemmas surrounding terrorism in the age of mass digital and social media.
Let us begin with Islamic State. This is an organisation with a highly professional media department putting out not only easy-to-share videos and messages, and a magazine. It is also known to produce annual reports outlining in methodical detail the number of IS bombings, assassinations, suicide missions and new recruits.
It is therefore all too likely that, last week, somebody in IS propaganda headquarters was tracking in real time the media impact of the Manchester attack: Are we trending on Twitter in Germany yet? How many trending hashtags in the UK are now about the attack? Have Islamophobe politicians across Europe thrown oil on the fire yet? How is Facebook doing? Are there already photos of the young victims circulating on the webpages of newspapers?
When an army kills enemy soldiers this act in itself constitutes military success—whether it gets on the news or not. But when a terrorist kills innocents and this goes entirely unreported, that attack loses all significance. Because for terrorists the aim is not killing itself. The aim is to terrify as many people as possible—and for that magnifying effect, you need the media.
Social media have become very important for terrorists—but as any journalist, PR operative or advertising consultant will tell you, to have real impact you need to be on TV. That medium requires images and videos, and so the IS propaganda department must have been very happy when a young concert goer did not run for safety after the blast. Instead, he got out his phone and started filming other people running for safety. He immediately posted this on twitter, helpfully “pinning” the tweet so it would remain at the top of his profile, where he is pictured in a red hoody. “Panicking at Victoria Station after @ArianaGrande concert. Hope everyone is all safe and well.”
This was all that television stations across the world needed. One journalist from New York tweeted right away: “Hope you are safe. Is this your video? Can CBS News use your video on all platforms and affiliates?” Another from Fox News in Seattle lost no time either: “Are you ok? I work for Q13 News in Seattle. May we share this video on air/online and with our Tribune Media stations in perpetuity?” The response was a “yes,” followed by: “I’m just sad that people have lost there lives tonight.” To which the journalist replied: “Yeah it’s terrible 🙁 Can you follow me back? I’m required to send you a follow up.”
That is the new normal: using the right legal formula (“in perpetuity,” “across all platforms and affiliates”) when sending a tweet to ask the witness to a terrorist attack for the copyright of the footage.
More and more images began to come in and so the photo editor for the BBC website could get to work on“In Pictures: Manchester Blast Aftermath.” Should he put at the top that limping girl in a dress with blood streaming across her bare shoulders, being escorted out by two dazed-looking female police officers in fluorescent yellow vests? Or perhaps that photo of a teenager staring into space as a middle aged woman, probably her mother, hunches over her, while another eyewitness talks to a police officer?
The question of what photo to put first has become very important, since that is what will appear on timelines when people share the story on social media. Competition is ruthless online and the more people who click and share “In Pictures: Manchester Blast Aftermath,” the more likely the BBC’s photo editor is to keep his job.
Meanwhile, the BBC’s video editor is almost done preparing a 47-second long interview with a witness. How to increase the chance of that being shared widely? Eventually, the editor settles on the headline “All I could hear was screaming.”
And so it went on all through the night: journalists and media competing ferociously with one another to create the most harrowing and therefore popular stories, videos and photo collages. Good Morning America on ABC went for: “WATCH: Desperate search for missing loved ones following attack in Manchester; at least 22 killed in attack. (video)”
As for the boy in the red hoody, he must have received a lot of traffic to his Twitter timeline on which, amidst heartrending messages and photos of still-missing victims, there is suddenly a “promoted tweet” by a company called @EC_Claims. It says: “Large payouts are waiting to be claimed by Egg customers. Start your check in 30 seconds ►► http://www.bit.ly/EggFreeCheck.”
That, too, is “the new normal” in the age of mass social media.
So here we are. News media got more clicks and views than they would have had on a quiet day. The boy in the hoody could have made money from his video but chose not to, and last but not least, the terrorist achieved exactly what he set out to get when he put on his bomb jacket: blanket coverage.
None of this is to say that news media should stop covering terrorist atrocities or that social media should be censored.
After a tragedy such as the Manchester attack, they both play positive roles as well, spreading messages of hope and compassion: The taxi drivers giving stranded concert-goers free rides. Mancunians taking to social media to offer them a place to stay. Emergency teams using Twitter to find and direct donors with rare blood types to the correct help facility.
And yet. The devastating truth is that we now have an information infrastructure where journalists and the media are actively encouraged—as well as financially rewarded—for playing the terrorists’ game.
Somebody acutely aware of this dilemma is Evan Williams, one of Twitter’s founders. Acknowledging that Twitter and social media more broadly are empowering the enemies of democracy, Evans recently told the New York Times: “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place.” Evans then added: “I was wrong about that.”