Social Advocacy & Politics: Twitter Brings the Kenyan Mall Attack to the World

Alan Rosenblatt Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy, turner4D

Posted on September 24th 2013

Social Advocacy & Politics: Twitter Brings the Kenyan Mall Attack to the World


As events unfolded at the Kenyan shopping mall, the world was given a front row seat to the terrorist attack and the Kenyan rescue assault as they transpired. In a perverse game of “Whack-a-Mole,” the terrorists used Twitter to provide running commentary and video from the mall as they were killing the shoppers and merchants. Twitter kept suspending their accounts, but new ones kept popping up to carrying on the terrorists' self-coverage.

ImageMeanwhile, the Kenyan government used its Twitter channels to keep Kenyans and the world updated on their brutal rescue assault; updates on the terrorist attack were provided by the Kenya National Disaster Operation Centre (@NDOCKenya) and live updates on the Kenyan Defence Forces rescue mission were provided via @KDinfo.

Looking back to the Boston Marathon bombing, we similarly saw real-time news updates from the Boston Globe via Twitter (especially when its website crashed) and the Boston Police Department providing real-time updates and alerts via its own Twitter account. But we did not see the terrorists using Twitter to promote their message and goals for the attack in Boston.

In Kenya, we saw both sides using Twitter to try to control the public narrative. And we saw Twitter try to shut down the terrorists’ ability to do that.

What should we take away from this tragedy with respect to the role of Twitter (and social media, generally)? First, if ever there was a case to be made that Twitter is a great source for breaking news, this is it. It also raises the question of the relative value of these live accounts versus journalistic reports.

Another question raised regards Twitter’s role as a censor. On the one hand, shutting down the disturbing, violence promoting tweets from the terrorists makes sense from a “what’s appropriate” perspective. But, on the other hand, shutting down the terrorists’ Twitter feeds cut off a potentially valuable source of “on the ground” intelligence that might have been helpful to the Kenyan authorities.

We saw a similar dynamic a few years ago when authorities cracked down on Craig’s List for sex services being offered on its site. In that case, authorities pushed for Craig’s List to police the posts on the site and delete them. While this was a physically daunting task, to say the least, I think it was totally misguided. It punished Craig (who does most of the work on the site and customer service himself), not the actual people breaking the law. Instead of burdening Craig’s List with a futile, ongoing task, authorities should have policed the posts themselves in order to identify and catch those selling sex on the list. Instead of trying to shut down the posts, those posts should be treated as valuable leads for stopping crimes.

The bottom line is that because social media channels are fundamentally open forums, they are often more useful when treated as places to gather intelligence than trying to censor them. Radical Islamic terrorists, extremist white supremacists and other groups who seek to harm others in their efforts to remake the world in their own twisted images are using social media to distribute propaganda and organize actions. Censoring this, while emotionally appealing, is most probably impossible. Using it against them, however, is not only easier, but a much better strategy if we want to improve our ability fight back.


Social Advocacy & Politics is a weekly, exclusive column for Social Media Today by Alan Rosenblatt that explores the intersection of politics and social media. Look for the next installment next Tuesday morning.


Alan Rosenblatt

Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy, turner4D

Alan Rosenblatt, Ph.D. is a social media and online advocacy strategist, professor & thought leader. He is Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy at turner 4D (formerly Turner Strategies), the co-founder and host of the Internet Advocacy Roundtable; and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins, American, (Georgetown and Gonzaga Universities), where he teaches courses on internet politics. He was Associate Director for Online Advocacy at the Center for American Progress/CAP Action Fund from 2007-2013, where he created and directed the Center’s social media program, as well as Ombudsmen and co-founder at Take Action News. Alan taught the world’s first internet politics course ever at George Mason University in 1995. He founded the Internet Advocacy Roundtable in 2005; blogs at,, and occasionally/previously at,,; serves on’s board of directors and Social Media Today’s Advisory Board; In 2008, he was a fellow at George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet; and is a co-founder of  Alan has a Ph.D. in Political Science from American University, an M.A. in Political Science from Boston College and a B.A. in Political Science and Philosophy from Tufts University. Find him on Twitter and across social media at @DrDigiPol.

See Full Profile >


Posted on September 24th 2013 at 2:53PM

This is so elemental in today's world. We had tragedy sometime back in India - The Uttarakhand Floods that took a lot of lives. Social Media was again quite responsive in that situation and that from a country which is still far behind in internet reach. Disaster response via social channels is probably one of the very few benefits of social networking known to mankind.

Posted on September 24th 2013 at 3:32PM

I agree that this is one of the benefits of social media. Though I think the benefits are many more than a "very few."

Shawn Alain
Posted on September 24th 2013 at 8:19PM

It's pretty cool that for the first time ever, anyone such as you or me can actually tell a ruthless terrorist on the other side of the world in the middle of an attack to "Go fuck yourself" to his Twitter. 

Posted on September 24th 2013 at 10:13PM