Kenya’s police force had been on Twitter just four days when gunmen entered the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi armed with grenades and automatic weapons.
Officials wasted no time putting the platform to use, relaying updates about the attack, asking witnesses to come forward and encouraging citizens to donate blood.
At almost exactly the same time — most likely in Somalia — al-Shabab militants were also using the social media site to claim responsibility for the attack and release details about it.
The account was quickly shut down as Twitter executives enforced their guidelines blocking “unlawful or illegal” activities. It was at least the third time in less than a year an account run by al-Shabab operatives had been set up and forcibly shut down.
Collecting information: A tweet sent by Kenya’s police chief David Kimaiyo during the Westgate siege
Good morning, we are still held up at Westgate. Kindly share information of the families who have been shopping and have not been traced.
— David Kimaiyo (@IGkimaiyo) September 22, 2013
RECRUITMENT, FUNDRAISING AND INFORMATION CONTROL
David Malet, international security specialist at the University of Melbourne, says experts have known about al-Shabab’s social media presence for at least two years.
“[al-Shabab] consider it a cornerstone of their strategy to try to reach out to youth in western countries,” he says.
Dr Malet believes the main motivation for their online presence is recruitment, and their target is young westerners.
“They’re trying to reach millennials, they’re trying to reach teenagers who they think might be active on social media sites who might not be familiar with the politics behind al-Shabab,” he says.
“If they can reach them [and] convince them of some noble cause out there that they’re fighting for… then they can persuade people to come join the cause.”
LISTEN: Click the orange play button below to hear an extended interview with Jake Wallis
Whether the approach actually boosts numbers for the group is “difficult to say,” he adds.
“There’s been some evidence of a few westerners who have joined al-Shabab, who have joined al-Qaeda because they’ve been in internet chatrooms or somebody has groomed them or recruited them, but for the most part recruitment among westerners has taken place face-to-face at community centres or mosques,” he says.
Information specialist Jake Wallis from Charles Sturt University says in the Westgate example, control over how the group is portrayed is also a key factor.
“The Kenyan authorities were using social media platforms such as Twitter to assert their control over the situation, and almost in real time, al-Shabab was able to generate a counter-narrative that asserted its position within the conflict,” he says.
“This is really important in terms of reaching out to that potential audience, in terms of recruitment and financial support.”
SHOULD ONLINE EXTREMISTS BE SHUT DOWN?
Most social media sites, including Twitter, allow anonymous users to set up accounts and run them however they like – until they break the rules.
Al-Shabab was able to continue running new Twitter accounts despite being continually shut down; a point that highlights the difficulty a company that hosts 200 million users worldwide has in policing its entire user base.
It also poses the question: can extremists ever be completely shut down?
Jake Wallis says probably not.
“It’s a significant problem for the platforms that are becoming the de-facto media environment in a digital age,” he says.
“What’s happening is platforms like Twitter, like Facebook, like YouTube, are having to make decisions about what constitutes acceptable engagement with a global audience, and in many ways engagement with a democratic political process.”
On the other hand, a social media presence can help authorities and experts understand and collect information about extremists and their movements, a fact that came to light through the PRISM project made famous by the leaks of Edward Snowden.
“Many of the digital gateways that we use on a regular basis, like Facebook, like Twitter, are supplying whole data sets to agencies who can then sift through that information and put together a picture of the kinds of relational networks that individuals considered security risks are engaged in,” says Mr Wallis.