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.
Meanwhile, 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.