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?…