17/11/2015 05:14 GMT | Updated 16/11/2016 05:12 GMT

The Terrorist Attack in the Social Media Age

After a few days have passed since Paris was gripped with the worst attacks on French soil in the post-war period, it seems that almost everyone has had their say. Rather than making political comments on the horrific circumstances, or providing suggestions for how the west should react, it feels necessary to look into the role played by social media in the latest act of terrorism.

Social media can certainly be advantageous in the event of atrocities or breaking news. Firstly, Twitter is without doubt a great way to follow breaking news and #ParisAttacks and #fusillade were useful for those wanting to keep up to date with the latest developments as they unfolded.

#PrayforParis was brilliantly used by people around the globe wanting to show small signs of solidarity for the victims, and #PorteOuverte was started in an honourable attempt to offer shelter for those stranded in the French capital on Friday night.

Social media is also really good for organizing events that bring people together. Within 24 hours of the horror, memorial events were held around the UK, including my city Bristol, where nearly 400 people came to show their support. A rendition of La Marseillaise was particularly moving.

Facebook's clever feature that sends people a notification, whose location is set as in a danger zone, so they can assure loved ones they are safe and sound is a good example of how social media can do good in terrible circumstances. However it also exposed the western bias by not offering options for Japan and Beirut.


Vigil in Trafalgar Square. Photo: Creative Commons

But this is only one side of the story. The defining feature of the gruesome Paris attacks was the sense of confusion. Once the news had broken that a shooting had taken place, the details of the nightmare unfolded bit by bit in a haze of speculation and panic. This was fuelled by the chaotic nature of social media.

Armchair experts were tweeting varying death tolls, reporting shootings in other parts of the city, and generally spreading speculation. This mixing of rumour and confirmed developments made the daunting job of news networks even harder.

A sense of chaos or panic is exactly what terrorism is designed to achieve, and the speculative nature of social media contributed to turning this into a reality during the Paris attacks.

Twitter is a great forum for the exchange of ideas and opinions, but this is not necessarily what is required when crisis descends. Before the final extent of the atrocities had even become clear, Twitter was swamped with people calling for more airstrikes in Syria, blaming the refugee crisis, and even arguing for more relaxed gun legislation.

Apart from the outpouring of messages of solidarity, Friday night was dominated by these knee-jerk reactions, and people also felt the need to state the bleeding obvious by saying that all the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world shouldn't carry the responsibility for the shootings.

While the Charlie Hebdo attacks were a direct assault on a particular value, the latest attacks are far less clear cut in this respect, and therefore require a more considered response, rather than simply saying, "I will always stand up for the principle of freedom of speech."

Whereas social media was perfectly designed for people to show their support for this principle with #JeSuisCharlie, it is hardly suited to considered or balanced expressing of opinions.

In the immediate aftermath of such sensitive events, the saying 'the less said the better' felt highly appropriate. Social media has become intrinsic to the way we interact with each other, consume to news, and express ourselves. In light of the Paris attacks, we should think carefully about the consequences every time we tweet or post something on Facebook relating to such major events.