Why it’s become much more difficult to stifle the messages of terrorists

Tom Welsh
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HE WASN’T writing about the brutal murder of British serviceman Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich on Wednesday, but Simon Jenkins’s analysis of the Boston marathon bombings has a chilling relevance. “Such deeds are senseless murders... What makes them terrorist is the outside world rushing to hand their perpetrators a megaphone.”

Take most newspapers’ decision to print front page images of one of Rigby’s alleged murderers, with his hands bloodied and weapons visible. Some have justified it by arguing that the papers can’t hide from what is already in the public domain – these images were freely available. It’s true, but we can criticise putting the pictures next to quotes from the murderers. “You will never be safe”; “we won’t stop fighting until you leave us alone”; there is a danger that parts of the press have given political coherence to otherwise crazed remarks.

But there’s another reason to feel concerned. Something has changed in the way we react to atrocities like Woolwich, but also in how their perpetrators operate: social media.

The Somali militant group al-Shabab opened a Twitter profile in late 2011. Another Al Qaeda offshoot in North Africa launched its own account in March this year. Jean Paul Rouiller of the Geneva Centre for Training and Analysis of Terrorism has warned that social media is now vital to terrorist organisations. They use it as a shop window, with a private world of chat rooms and online forums operating behind. Baroness Neville-Jones, a former security minister, said yesterday that internet hate preaching could have inspired Wednesday’s perpetrators.

It goes further. The alleged Woolwich killers were horrible for their media savvy. They asked passers-by to take their pictures. And the earliest reports from the scene came from bystanders using Twitter and camera phones. Many papers have reprinted tweets from Boya Dee, an eyewitness who reported the incident in real-time, while journalists were frantically scouring social media for new sources – playing catch up with the people on the ground.

If you agree that senseless violence should not be legitimised, this is a problem. We can demand that the media has an eye for decency and refuses to publish gore or terrorist messages, but the information is already out there. We can crack down on social media or hateful websites, but anyone with malicious intent will find ways to access that information. There is no going back to the days when the voice of Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s president, was banned from television by Margaret Thatcher to “starve him...of the oxygen of publicity”. Our enemies either have smartphones or can commit murder in front of someone who does.

As reporting becomes more democratic, all of us must take responsibility for avoiding the hysteria that social media encourages. We can still live by Jenkins’s laudable aim not to scare ourselves into overreaction. But it means we must have confidence in society’s resilience, and can’t rely on the press to stifle terrorists’ messages.

Tom Welsh is business features editor at City A.M.