Reporting Terror in the Social Media Age
The international community experienced a series of tragic attacks over the holiday break, striking fear and paranoia during a time of celebration. On December 19, Anis Amri crashed a truck into a Berlin Christmas market, killing twelve and injuring fifty-six people. Also on December 19, Mevlut Mert Altintas assassinated Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, during an art gallery screening. And on January 1, an unknown perpetrator shot into an Istanbul night club during a New Year celebration, killing at least thirty-nine people and injuring at least seventy others. Each of these attacks were linked to Islamic terrorist groups, namely the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Islamist Jaish al-Fatah coalition, and each attack heightened geopolitical tensions in the area.
The ISIL attack in Berlin disrupted a Christmas market filled with stalls and hundreds of people at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, the semi-trailer truck driving through parts of the market before coming to a stop. Reporters often juxtaposed images of the violent aftermath beside cheery, innocent pictures of the victims celebrating Christmas, further increasing public resentment towards ISIL. The event fueled right-wing anger regarding Germany’s current refugee and anti-terrorist policies, potentially contributing to the ongoing rise of nationalist sentiment in the country. International actors quickly condemned the act, offering condolences to those affected.
The Christmas market attack was similar in tone to the Istanbul night club attack. An ISIL agent attacked the Reina nightclub in Ortakoy, the gunman shooting into a crowd with hundreds of people. News media also juxtaposed before- and after-images of the scenes, the festive mood during the New Year celebration contrasting starkly with the terrified, bloody survivors. The event occurred during a year of other horrific terrorist attacks by ISIL, including an attack at Ataturk Airport in June that killed forty-eight people and a bombing at the Vodafone Arena in early December that killed forty-four people.
The assassination in Turkey was different in scope from the other two major attacks. The gunman targeted a specific Russian diplomat in response to current geopolitical issues between Russia, Turkey, and Syria, shouting slogans like “Do not forget Aleppo” and “Do not forget Syria.” The attack, however, was just as public as the other two. Dramatic pictures of Altintas shouting into a camera with Karlov facedown on the floor were widely shared on social media. After Jaish al-Fatah claimed responsibility for the assassination, international actors exchanged shocked commentary that disrupted ongoing debate about the fall of Aleppo.
Critically, these terrorist attacks over the holiday break were not unique incidences, but were rather part of a long series of events in 2016. For example, the truck crash through a group of people in the Christmas market attack echoes the Nice attack, wherein a cargo truck also drove through a crowd. The Nice attack occurred during Bastille Day, a national holiday for France, injuring 434 people and killing eighty-six due to the density of the celebration. Many news reports link these attacks to heightened terrorist activities in 2016.
As international actors begin to reflect on how we should react appropriately to terrorist activity in 2017; many are noting the highly-publicized nature of these recent attacks. Social media often shared the initial videos shared by survivors. Some of the Snapchat or Twitter videos taken during the Nice and Berlin attacks were shared thousands of times before news stations started reporting the story. Others rely on live updates by locals on Facebook or Reddit, relying on those sources of information well before official coverage.
In these sites, fear, and paranoia run rampant. Racism and islamophobia begin to color speculation, often affecting how the event is officially broadcast by news outlets. The faces of the attackers are displayed prominently, elevating their status to significant importance. This openness is potentially dangerous not only because the vitriol generates internal animosity towards already-endangered groups like refugees but also because spreading attackers’ messages helps radicalize youth.
The conversation in 2017, at least in some circles, is changing in response to the constant publication of terrorism in Europe. Although no one is considering outright censorship of terrorist activity, some do urge caution in how the news is shared and reported, drawing attention to the overly-sensationalized way the US handles its mass shootings. Whether these actors can actually restrain themselves, however, is a different story.