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From Minutes to Months: A Rapid Evidence Assessment of the Impact of Media and Social Media During and After Terrorist Events

From Minutes to Months: A Rapid Evidence Assessment of the Impact of Media and Social Media During and After Terrorist Events

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Leading counter-terrorism experts offer new communications guidance for authorities to better manage the impacts of terror attacks

Governments and police forces around the world need to give greater consideration to the potential harm caused by mass and social media following terror events, a report concludes.

Academics at Cardiff University’s Crime and Security Research Institute (CSRI) lead an international team of analysts from the University of New South Wales, Michigan State University and the Canadian Society of Evidence Based Policing to learn the lessons from researching recent terror attacks in the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. By reviewing all the published research on the role of media and social media in the wake of terror attacks, together with detailed case studies of specific incidents, the study has produced new evidence and insights about how media and social media coverage can increase the public harms of terrorism, and what works in mitigating such effects.

The research team found such attacks continue to have an adverse impact long after the initial incident, as a wide range of voices compete through mainstream and social media.  

Led by Professor Martin Innes Director of the CSRI, the team of academics have developed a Minutes to Months (M2M) framework, to help authorities formulate robust strategies for managing the resulting online reactions after a major incident. The work was commissioned by the Five Country Ministerial (FCM) Countering Extremism Working Group – which includes the governments of the UK, Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Communications after a terrorist incident often lead to a spike in hate crimes, incite and fuel extremism and prompt damaging disinformation and rumours. Governments, police and others involved in public safety need to be ready to offer accurate, regular information to minimise negative fallout, researchers say.

The report states: “Terrorist violence is intended as a provocation to elicit intense and vivid reactions; the relative neglect of how to manage post-event situations… is a current weak point in many governmental counter-terrorism frameworks.”

It adds: “The increasing volume of communication enables different groups to develop alternative interpretations and framings of the same event. As a consequence, there are typically multiple narratives and accounts circulating in the post-event environment.

“Terrorist violence is purposively designed to ‘terrorise, polarise and mobilise’ different public audiences, therefore understanding and managing the dynamics of public reaction to these provocations is vital.”

Last year, Professor Innes and his team issued a report which identified the systematic use of fake social media accounts deliberately spreading disinformation, linked to Russia, amplifying the public impacts of the four terrorist attacks that took place in the UK in 2017 - at Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Finsbury Park.

Professor Innes said: “Over the past five years or so, both the mechanics and dynamics of terrorism and how it is reported via media sources, have altered dramatically. There has been a diversification in terms of ideological motivations, and a shift to a full-spectrum of attack methodologies, ranging from bombings to knife and vehicle-based attacks. Over the same period, the logics of media and the information environment have been fundamentally transformed.

“Taking a pragmatic view, that despite the best efforts of police and security services, not all future plots will be prevented, developing an understanding of how any harms can be mitigated is an important undertaking.”

The report was funded by the Federal Government’s Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence (Canada Centre) on behalf of the Five Country R&D Network (5RD), in support of the Five Country Ministerial Countering Violent Extremism Working Group. The Canada Centre is working with international partners to help identify knowledge gaps in countering radicalization to violence. 

From Minutes to Months: A rapid evidence assessment of the impact of media and social media during and after terror events, is available below

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