Economic and Social Research Council
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Terror and the impact of social media

Friday's terror attacks in Paris received huge attention over social media. There has been an unprecedented expression of solidarity and sorrow over Twitter, Facebook and other platforms.

Research shows that social media are changing the way we relate to terror – both the attacks themselves and their aftermath. Attacks are having more widespread and longer-lasting impacts.

The ubiquity of smartphones means that terror attacks can almost be followed in real-time. One of the people trapped in the Bataclan concert venue during the Paris attacks described what was happening and pleaded for rescue. A video was posted online showing the moment the concert was interrupted by shooting.

Social media is changing the speed of how the public learns about terrorist attacks, and the way they react. The first information to the public about incidents is now likely to come through social media channels such as Twitter rather than through traditional news outlets.

The research project 'After Woolwich', led by Professor Martin Innes at Cardiff University, analysed social reactions to the 2013 murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich using social media data collected from Twitter, blogs and other sources. The data has enabled researchers to track how public perceptions evolved as key events occurred, from the crime scene through to the conclusion of the court case, to understand how public opinion is shaped and evolves throughout the events.

Findings confirmed that social media are becoming a key information source and increasingly important in influencing the public's understanding of terror attacks and what happens in the aftermath. There were in excess of 800 tweets a minute about the Lee Rigby murder at its peak.

This use of social media has implications for the first response by police to such attacks, with witnesses tweeting directly from the scene. The research suggests that there is a need to improve strategic communications capacity and capability in the initial response phase to inform the public about what is actually happening, in order to counteract rumours and conspiracy theories.

Not only first response strategies are needed. The rapid and wide reach of social media also means that the impacts of terrorist attacks on people and communities are becoming more widespread and longer-lasting – creating a need for management strategies encompassing different agencies that address the longer-term community impacts.

Further information

After Woolwich: social reactions on social media (Gateway to Research)


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