We need to talk about post-terror better
Earlier this year, following the Westminster terrorist attacks, I wrote a piece about gamification; how the act of watching atrocities roll out on social media had become a game — one in which we’d always know the end result, but nevertheless continued to play. Why we play the game is something we can’t really answer; for some, the art of trolling just for trolling’s sake is enough. Others, seeking comfort in uncertain times, turn to their Twitter timelines to feel less alone. I imagine that for most of us, turning to social media might allow us the belief that we have some form of stability.Whatever the motive, post-terror responses often show that our apparent filter bubbles aren’t as protected as we think they are.
On Twitter, it takes just one or two commenters to turn a thread about praying for the dead, to become one about Muslim immigration. More than one columnist has (accidentally or not) called for internment camps and possibly genocide. Facebook isn’t much better, and considering the platform is even more personalised, it’s probably more difficult to respond to your grandad calling for another Crusade, than it is with Katie Hopkins.
All of which is to say — we still don’t quite know how to respond to terrorist attacks and atrocities, and the public social media platforms we use aren’t useful at helping us out either.
Back when I was a reporter, I was sometimes sent to the aftermath of terrorist arrests, unveilings and suspected attacks (during my time, there were no real successful terrorist attacks that warranted mass media attention). I’m also part of a generation of reporters that thinks in digital-first. It’s not a matter of spending a day getting a scoop; when you’re working on this kind of story, if not this kind of beat, there’s even more pressure to get scoops within hours, if not minutes. At the best of times, this would lead to business owners telling you to fuck off when you ask them about alleged connections to terrorists (I was once banned from a Kebab shop because of this). At the behest of pushy editors, I’ve also been chased out of an estate block and threatened in search of the “scoop” to prove newsroom worthiness.
Reporters sign up to this when they take the job, but the desire ‘to be first’ when reporting on terror can lead to more harmful outcomes. I’ve seen eager reporters produce copy on the back of flimsy, if not entirely false evidence, that has helped to tarnish local communities in periods of grief, which has not only affected the local economy, but the morale of underprivileged communities. And, as an informative Twitter thread posted today, it can also harm the victim in the form of long-lasting PTSD and worsening other intense mental illnesses.
I bring up the role of the media because, in the way our current social media experience is set up, only media companies benefit. They benefit in the form of retweets, likes and exposure. They benefit when they put out explainer videos too. But they also benefit in filling up the empty space between when the attack takes place, and the time in which the perpetrator, and the facts are revealed. They fill that time by employing talking heads and spinning hot takes over disinformation.
In the coming days, it’s likely that we’ll see commentators like Douglas Murray or that guy from Spiked dot com intellectualise an argument whose end conclusion would involve the selective repression of civil rights for the sake of security. Alternatively, organisations may, for the sake of OFCOM, wheel out telegenic Muslim commentators that can reassure us that British Muslims are normal people. It’s following the same script we’ve had since 2005, but the pressure of social media ultimately means that any package or interview will be commissioned on the off-chance it could go viral and “strike a debate” — which basically means, retweets and likes.
This model has had it’s own side effect too : In the US, it’s spawned an array of Youtube channels and commentators whose shows are largely built on the vacuity of commentary — things like Infowars and Rebel Media, whose growing viewership has given TV executives a run for its money. Industry insiders haven’t been shy to admit that they’re looking at these kinds of shows — the ones that mix opinion with gonzo journalism, as a path to the future of news.
All of which is to say, that our current state of post-terror response has itself created a different sort of media economy, which, in my view, is teetering to the point where it can no longer be controlled. Worse still, is that it’s profoundly changed the way we enact language — just think about how conversations around citizenship and nationhood have changed since the Brexit campaign. If social media companies really do want to live up to the first part of that phrase, then they do need to think about society and civic conversations. In my mind, the way the system is set up means that productive dialogue is at risk of falling apart, and replaced with a darker kind of identitarian orthodoxy.
And news organisations, liberal or conservative, would be more than happy to play into that.