Columns / Discourse / October 2, 2013

World Politics Corner: Social media’s role in tragedies, Examining Nairobi

The recent horrors of the four-day siege of Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya have brought about great fear and sorrow, ending the lives of 67 people and leaving many injured. As you would expect, the Westgate mall hostage conflict will forever be remembered as a tragedy. But more importantly the attack brought forth a renewed sense of solidarity among Kenyan citizens and the global community as a whole. Grand tales of heroism and unity are nothing new, especially when in the presence of devastation. As more information about the assailants comes to view, I wonder how much of the media’s coverage will heavily favor the gruesome details about the attack and the assailants over the stories of the victims and their grace and courage under great adversity.

Photos of carnage and violence surface on the internet, further strengthening the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality that terrorists know all too well.

Terrorism’s ability to create chaos and confusion through wanton violence makes it, naturally, the ultimate ploy for garnering instantaneous power and control. Terrorists target the mundane (schools, buses/trains/subways, airports, public buildings, etc.), the so-called “safe” zones that we often take for granted. Stories that focus on the attackers themselves only heighten the destructive impact they have already caused.

Social media in this day and age is growing more and more influential; it is so much more than a cyber “hang out” spot based on superficial relationships (as I had once thought of it). The social media sphere erupted with encouragement in no time, illustrating Kenya’s strong sense of unity as the mass shooting unfolded in real time. The Twitter hashtag #weareone has successfully mobilized people to donate money and blood to victims. #weareone, which started about a year ago, has mobilized people in the past but never to this degree.

Unlike traditional news media, which relies on a selected group of people to bring us the news (as they see fit), social media is characteristically democratic and transparent in nature. Perhaps these very traits can help combat the psychological damage left by acts of terrorism. Public displays of emotional support through photos, personal videos, and messages can also counter traditional media’s constant depiction of death and violence, thereby weakening terrorism’s ability to instill fear.

But of course there is always another side to the coin. Terrorists and extreme militant groups also have access to social media, despite the fact that they are by far outnumbered. The public perception that they are a strong and cohesive force is all it takes to engender trepidation. Power and influence are subjective, unquantifiable and defined on two levels of assessment (individual and societal). Thus far, however, I firmly believe that the general public dominates this ever-evolving space.

My favorite photo is a group of children on rollerblades holding signs pleading people to donate blood. It is photos like these that commemorate the dead, not the bloody ones that highlight the evil deeds of a narrow-minded group of individuals.

As of now, there are nine suspects in custody with only one arrest. Al-Shabaab, an Islamist group from Somalia, has taken responsibility for planning and carrying out the attack.

Mydel Santos

Tags:  Kenya mass shooting Nairobi news terrorism terrorist tradition tragedy victim weareone Westgate

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