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Paris Attacks: Social media is the villain of the piece, and the hero of the hour

Updated Thursday 19th November 2015

In both the planning and response to the Paris Attacks on November 13th, social media played a role. Two experts explain more.

It's an indication of how central social media has become to the world we live in that it was both instrumental in the planning of, and the aftermath of, the Paris Attacks. First, Robyn Torok explains how ISIS used social media to plan the attacks; then Arnaud Mercier tells how the channels came to the fore after the horror unfolded.

The photographer says this is a Creative commons image Icon Lex McKee under CC-BY-NC under Creative-Commons license

How social media was key to Islamic State’s attacks on Paris

Robyn Torok writes:
While the average person was getting on with life in Paris before last Friday’s terror bombings and shootings, Twitter threads in Arabic from the Middle East were urging for attacks to be launched upon coalition forces in their home countries.

“Advance, advance – forward, forward” they said, regarding Paris.

Iraqi forces had warned coalition countries one day before the attack that IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had called for “[…] bombings or assassinations or hostage taking in the coming days”.

In addition, social media message “Telegrams” from The Islamic State Media Center’s Al-Hayat were telling that something more sinister may be afloat, or at least in the works.

In late September, 2015, IS made use of the new “Channels” tool, on Telegrams, setting up its very own channel called Nashir, which translates as “distributor” in English.

Hiding in privacy

Telegram is an app, launched in 2013, that can be set up on almost any device and allows messages to be sent to users, with a strong focus on privacy.

IS utilises the service of Telegram channels because it is more difficult for security agencies to monitor and disrupt than other platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.

An important tool that agencies use to tackle violent extremism is that of counter-narratives. The aim here is address and challenge propaganda and misinformation being disseminated by IS to potential recruits or IS sympathisers.

This is used as a form of disruption to the flow of information and recruitment process. But with Telegrams – since information moves in one direction – it makes it harder to counter jihad propaganda and lies.

Telegrams is used by IS to not just post propaganda, but to spread training manuals, advice on how to obtain and import weapons, how to make bombs and how to perform single jihadi attacks on individuals with household equipment.

It has posts on launching attacks at soft targets and the activation of lone-wolf style attacks, or give the green light for small terrorists pockets or cells within the community to conduct their onslaught.

Inciting acts of violence is a key element of IS’s radical religious ideology. It mandates that its people are following the “true” path of Allah and are helping to bring to pass a great apocalyptic battle between coalition forces and “Rome”, which to them is the will of Allah.

Social media advantage

Social media is prominent in recruitment strategies used by terrorist groups, in particular, IS.

Facebook is a key platform to gather young fans, supporters and recruits to incite them to acts of violence by the means of propaganda and the use of Islamic grievance.

When it comes to real-time orchestrating of terror events, IS is adopting encrypted messaging applications – including Kik, Surespot, Wickr and Telegram, as previously mentioned – that are very difficult to compromise or even hack.

What is advantageous for IS is that messages being sent have what is termed a “burn time” which means they will be deleted after a certain time and will not show up on a phone or other device.

This benefits recruiters as it means they can fly under the radar more readily which makes it more difficult for agencies to detect and prevent attacks.

Also, IS is using the PlayStation 4 network to recruit and plan attacks. Belgium’s deputy prime minister and minister of security and home affairs, Jan Jambon, said PlayStation4 was more difficult for authorities to monitor than WhatsApp and other applications.

After the Paris attacks

Not long after the attacks in Paris, IS released an audio and written statement claiming the attack as its own from command central. This was systematically and widely broadcast across social media platforms.

Contained in this statement were future warnings that “[…] this is just the beginning of attacks […]”. At the same time, a propaganda video entitled “What are you waiting for?” was circulated on Facebook, Twitter and Telegrams.

IS continues to use social media as part of its terror campaign. Its aim is to maintain the focus of its recruits and fighters within coalition countries. It also aims to further recruit home-grown jihadists to acts of violence while driving fear into the heartland of European and Western countries.

While privacy is something on everyone’s mind, encryption applications have gained much momentum to allow people to communicate without worrying about unwanted third party access.

Unfortunately, terrorists have also utilised these features as a means to go undetected in organising real-time operations and preparation for terrorist attacks.

Terrorists are ahead of the A-game and we don’t want to be playing continual catch-up. If terrorists are to continue using these applications to arrange acts of terrorism in a covert manner, then security agencies need to be able to balance the collection of information from technological advanced services with that of human intelligence.

Dealing with the threat of misuse of encrypted applications by IS and other terror organisations, would mean that law enforcement and agencies would require access to encrypted communications. While one could argue this may compromise data security and that it should also be assessed alongside internet vulnerabilities, this must be balanced against the current climate of security threat both domestically and internationally.


How social media shaped our understanding of the Paris attacks

Arnaud Mercier writes:
As with so many disasters and tragedies that strike in the 21st century, social media – an area of open expression online, free of the mediation of journalists – were at the heart of the wave of attacks in Paris.

As events unfolded, witnesses reflexively got out their cellphones and shot live coverage of what was happening before their eyes. These amateur images were then relayed by media both online and on TV. Thus the first images of the Bataclan attack, filmed from an apartment a few hundred meters away, were quickly posted on YouTube and relayed by other networks. Depending how you count, they had more than 2.1 million views in less than 20 hours. The same process took place on January 7, when an amateur in a nearby apartment building filmed the Kouachi brothers shouting victoriously after their attack on Charlie Hebdo.

Friday night a man named Steven Costa had the same instinct after arriving at the scene of a café massacre, and even interviewed witnesses. Another citizen did the same at the scene of the bombings at the Stade de France.

As was the case in January, the habits of everyday people continue to influence professional journalists: the apartment of a Le Monde editor, Daniel Psenny, overlooks the emergency exit of the Bataclan, and it was he who shot the vidéo seen more than 12 million times in a few hours.

Social networking, social solidarity

The public space that these digital networks create allows citizens to build mutual support networks on a self-organising model. On Twitter, hashtags and their associated news feeds rise up, allowing users to cooperate and exchange information.

During the night of November 13 and 14, two exemplary cases stand out. The hashtag #porteOuverte, proposed by the independent journalist and online activist Sylvain Lapoix, became one of the most prominent on Twitter that evening. It means “open door”, and allowed Parisians to both express their support for those living in neighbourhoods affected by the attacks and help those who might be prevented from returning to their homes. Similarly, #rechercheParis became the means by which residents tried to find traces of loved ones from whom they hadn’t heard.

Facebook too played its part. In October 2014 the social network launched a feature called Safety Check that helps users contact their friends during natural disasters. The company chose to activate it for the Paris attacks – those who’d identified themselves as being in the city were asked if they were safe and encouraged to let their friends know. All users had to do was click and a reassuring message was automatically displayed.

The application was well received, but also resulted in criticism because Facebook hadn’t made the same decision after the Beirut bombing the day before. In response, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg says it will activate the feature for other “human disasters” going forward.

Emotional expression on the networks

One of the keys to social networks' success lies in the ways the public can engage with them emotionally, to use them to share their feelings – indignation, anger, sadness, illnesses. In truly dramatic circumstances, their emotional power is fully engaged, allowing users to share their grief with victims and show empathy in response to the situation.

Graphic design is one of the most popular tools on social networks, allowing the sharing with just a few words – or wordlessly – of one’s feelings, especially after the stunning impact of violence that was as blind as it was repugnant.

Visual messages quickly became popular, like so many expressions of empathy deposited on the digital altars that our accounts have become. We change the image on our Facebook profiles, Twitter or Tumblr. We customise our Pinterest or Instagram account to show images that move or touch us the most and that best sum up our mood. A single tear is enough to symbolise all our emotions.

During the night we discovered the influence of Joachim Roncin’s famous “Je suis Charlie” logo, quickly reworked as “Je suis Paris”, “Je suis France” and even “Je suis en terrasse” – people showing defiance by posting self-portraits outside cafés.

Graphic artist Jean Jullien’s inventiveness was highlighted when he visually associated the Eiffel Tower with a message of peace to honor the victims and survivors.

The hashtag #PrayforParis also became a global message, with more than 7 million tweets is several hours. Exploring even a small range of how so many people expressed their resilience is to find meaning in a world that seems absurd, incomprehensible, uncontrollable.

Images and symbols highlighting positive initiatives also circulated, to show there’s still humanity in this absurd and brutal chaos. The images demonstrate the rest of the world standing with us, cultural initiatives, meditative moments, slogans that allow us to show our determination to stand up to the threat.

Social media as the vehicle of all the rumours

Unfortunately, social networks have also allowed many false rumours to spread. In these cases, sharing is done without control and without restraint.

A photo of the rock group Eagles of Death Metal circulating on Twitter and Facebook claimed to show the band in concert in the Bataclan on the evening of drama. In fact, it was taken earlier in their tour, at a venue in Ireland.

During the night of November 13 and 14, false reports of new shootings were everywhere: Gunshots and bombs were reportedly heard at Beaubourg, Les Halles, Trocadero and more. In the panic, users relayed these unfounded claims, probably thinking they were saving others from danger.

But there was no shooting in Bagnolet, and the shocking image of an alleged victim was taken in Brazil. A prophecy supposedly posted November 5 to an online forum, jeuxvideo.com, turned out to have been completely fabricated in an attempt to make it appear that the attacks were foretold.

These are just a few examples of the magnitude that human stupidity can take on social networks, between ill-informed but well-intentioned panic to outright malevolence with false messages and reused images, to say nothing of conspiracy theories (and often xenophobic ones) that are already showing up (but which we refuse to publicise by describing them here).

These articles first appeared on The Conversation

 

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