Economic and Social Research Council
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Managing the aftermath of terrorist attacks

Analysis of social media responses to terrorism shows patterns in the public reaction, which can shape police response and defuse reactions in the aftermath.

Lessons learned from the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby can result in better management of the consequences of terrorism in the future, says a team of criminologists and computer scientists from Cardiff University currently working with the police National Counter Terrorism Functions Command.

Their in-depth study of the use of social media and other publicly accessible data from the first tweet at the Lee Rigby crime scene through to the conclusion of the court case sheds new light on the community impacts of terrorist attacks.

"To date attention has focused on how social media can be monitored to spot individuals who pose a potential risk of terrorism," says Professor Martin Innes. "But not all attacks can be prevented. We wanted to explore whether social media can contribute to better managing the community impacts of those attacks that do succeed."

The research team examined more than 35 million data points related to the Lee Rigby case collected over a 12-month period, to create a resource tracking the changing dynamics of public reaction in the aftermath of a terrorist atrocity. "By analysing this resource we find a patterning of social reaction to the terrorist attack which has important implications for how counter-terrorism resources are used following future incidents," he says.

Crucially, researchers discovered a ten-stage process of social reaction (termed the 'ten Rs'). For example, immediately after the murder people at the scene of the crime started 'reporting' what they had observed via social media. At around the same time, others in the vicinity were 'requesting' information about what was happening. Later stages in the process included the use of social media to organise 'retaliatory' violence and attempts to ‘recruit’ others to a cause.

"Our work has shown that social media is increasingly important in influencing how the public understand terrorist attacks and what happens in the aftermath," he says. "This has important consequences for police and authorities in terms of helping them engage in anticipatory actions that can take the heat out of a tense situation and reduce opportunities for the kinds of secondary, retaliatory crimes by extreme political groups that we saw following Lee Rigby's killing.

"While political rhetoric insists we will not be cowed by terrorism, these acts do have complex effects and impacts," says Professor Innes. "We can't stop every terrorist attack, but by understanding community impacts we can manage the consequences better."

Further information

Professor Martin Innes, Cardiff University
Email: innesm@cardiff.ac.uk

This article was published in the Summer 2016 issue of the Society Now magazine.

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