After A Terrorist Attack, Social Media Can Cause More Harm Than Good
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Many of us learned about the Manchester attack by looking at our phones. We got news alerts, saw videos posted to Facebook and tweets on Twitter. Perhaps you even sent a few of your own. But that might not be the best thing to do.
EMILY DREYFUSS: Social media, because it's where everyone's sharing information, it's where law enforcement goes to find out what's going on, and it's where the media goes to find out what's going on. So if you're halfway across the world and you retweet something that's wrong, you're adding to the noise and making it harder for people to figure out how to stay safe.
CORNISH: Emily Dreyfuss is a senior editor at WIRED. This week, she wrote about the harm social media can do in the wake of a terrorist attack. She joins us now. Welcome to the program.
DREYFUSS: Thank you so much for having me.
CORNISH: What harm is done by sharing information about attacks on social media?
DREYFUSS: The potential harm that is done is that it amplifies the goal of terrorism, which is not merely to maim or murder people but to actually incite fear at large. And so when you retweet gory images, one thing that you are doing is spreading fear from a small group in a place like Manchester to the entire world. And that is the exact goal.
CORNISH: So are you saying that this is part of the plan when there is an attack? And do you mean information they're sharing amongst themselves as propaganda, or do they kind of infiltrate that flow of information as well with the greater population?
DREYFUSS: Both. I mean terrorists are some of the most savvy social media users in the world. They will put together their propaganda in the form of memes so that it's easily shareable. But additionally, in Manchester, one other risk is that terrorists want you to share so much information that you confuse the topic. So in Manchester, the terrorists used this app called Telegram to say that there were shooters all around Manchester, which was not true. But people picked up on that, put it on Twitter, and then that confused the issue.
CORNISH: In the meantime, what about the big online platforms like Facebook, like Twitter? Are they doing anything in particular to try and prevent sensitive material from being spread after an attack?
DREYFUSS: Yes, they're doing a lot. Twitter has suspended 636,248 accounts linked to terrorism between August 2015 and December 2016. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft have all partnered together to try to use artificial intelligence to get this kind of terrorist propaganda and violent imagery off of all of their platforms. It's an impossibly difficult task, but they are trying to take it seriously.
CORNISH: Another aspect of this is the relationship between social media and network or legacy media - right? - that what we put out there online often ends up now on television to be played back at us.
DREYFUSS: Exactly. Unfortunately, social media users may not have wanted this assignment. But if you're on social media right now, you are the assignment editor for mainstream television news, which means that anything you say, anything you share will be looked at by television journalists and potentially put on TV, all the more reason why people on social media need to be aware of the fact that what you do online can amplify this kind of terrorism.
CORNISH: Now, in your article and here, you do point out that people rely on social media for good reasons during these events to find help or to offer help. But how do you think we should strike the balance? I mean when tragedy strikes, what is it that you're thinking we all should do or think about?
DREYFUSS: I think, number one, the thing to do is pause and think first before you retweet or share something. Is the information I am sharing potentially helpful? One interesting thing is that the law enforcement in the U.K. tweeted out and said, please send your images directly to us; we rely on them to understand what happened and to bring justice to the perpetrators. But please don't share those on social media because that traumatizes the people who survived and the families of the victims.
CORNISH: Emily Dreyfuss is a senior editor at WIRED. Her story examining how social media can amplify the chaos of a terror attack is on wired.com. Emily Dreyfuss, thanks so much for speaking with us.
DREYFUSS: Thanks for having me, Audie.
(SOUNDBITE OF FC KAHUNA SONG, "HAYLING")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.