By Aliénor de Steur, M.A. Candidate in Intelligence and National Security at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA)
The instantaneity of social media allows us to follow any event happening around the world in real time. It could be an election live-platform, a live broadcast of an interesting conference, the scandals of a celebrity’s life, or a terrorist attack in Paris. On November 13, terrible events took place in France’s capital, and we got to watch every minute of it happening. It was everywhere on Twitter, Facebook, and media websites. During the night, media channels made constant updates, along with police services and individuals on the scene. Beyond live news, government leaders of the world, such as David Cameron or Justin Trudeau, made solidarity declarations with France, and that only minutes after the attacks (sometimes even when they were still taking place).
However, this immediacy of information and reaction poses new challenges and modifies our attitude towards such events. For instance, the French authorities rapidly asked people to stop posting and sharing images of the police’s movement, since this could give information to the terrorists. This happened again in Brussels a few days later during the city lockdown. The citizens’ response was hilariously positive: they massively shared pictures of cats, flooding the web with it. However, this is easier to do when you’re comfortably confined home, less so when you are in the streets near the attacks. The problem is as follows: how can you know if a picture you took would give any valuable information to the terrorist if they are watching? Where is the limit between informing and sharing a dangerous photo? Well, when in doubt, just do not share it.
Another reason not to share images of an attack, especially images of victims, is respect. Indeed, the French authorities also asked people not to share images of the victims, in respect for the families (and the victims themselves). They asked this after an image of the interior of the Bataclan was shared on social networks and was reused on certain media websites. Again, where is the line between showing the horror in order to inform, and stepping on victims’ and families’ dignity?
In addition, the instantaneity of social media also has a downside: misinformation. With the speed of Internet, people do not necessarily take the time to look at the source of an image or of a statement before pressing like or retweet. This can easily create misinformation. The examples are numerous: false location of the attacks, the Empire State Building lit with France’s colors, or a gathering for solidarity in Germany (which was actually a photo of a Pegida protest, an anti-immigration movement). In order to help people recognize actual information from misinformation, media, such as Le Monde, published tips and tricks on how not to be fooled by rumors. One of their advice was to look at information conveyed by official accounts, like the police services ones. Indeed, more and more police services have a Twitter or Facebook account and share information with their followers during crisis. For instance, the Ottawa Police used this method during the attacks on the War Memorial and Parliament Hill on the 22nd of October 2014. Other cities, such as Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary or Montreal also have an online presence.
Beyond those dangers of using social media during a crisis, such as terrorist attacks, there exist some upsides to instantaneity. The hashtag #porteouverte (literally “open door”) was used on Twitter to offer shelter to people in the streets of Paris. Strangers would open their door to protect wanderers in a gesture of solidarity. The message was conveyed in multiple languages with the same hashtag, creating a wave on Twitter. Another online phenomenon was the Facebook safe check. Its goal was to help people around the world know their loved ones in Paris were safe. Already used once during the Nepal Earthquake, it was used again for the attacks on Paris. This allowed people to tell everyone at once they were safe and sound, instantly and massively. Beyond those mechanisms, a wave of solidarity with Paris immediately flooded the web. A colour filter for Facebook profile pictures, the image of the Eiffel tower as a peace symbol, government declaration, all were there. In brief, the immediacy of social media was not only a vector for strategic information leaks and misinformation, but also a platform for individual security and global solidarity.
One thing remains certain: social media are and will be a challenge in times of crisis. Is this instantaneity of information making the world more or less secure? The police services will undoubtedly have to adapt to these changes, by communicating through these networks and making calls not to share any sensitive information. Yet, they should always consider the possibility such info can be leaked: the internet is not controllable.
Photo by Joe The Goat Farmer