Monday, September 9, 2013

Terrorist Attacks and Social Media


On Friday, a situation unfolded in the UK's county of Kent (the county that lies south east of London).  It started off with a simple Facebook post from a friend about being stuck in traffic, and within an hour had turned into an attempted terrorist attack. A further hour or two and a second attack was known to be foiled and the police announced they were linked.

The odd thing i noticed was the communication.  Usually, when you've got several tens of thousands of inconvenienced people and they're posting photos of the army, ambulances, bomb disposal teams and police, the services and news are quick to point out that something is going on.

One can conclude from Friday's events that they were trying to enforce a poorly executed media blackout.  Probably to stop info from the first attackers reaching the second.  This is further bolstered by Sky news first announcing a bomb at Dartford, then retracting the statement - which made them look inconsistent, then they went back to saying there was something and then retracting it yet again.  The official line from Dartford being that "a man was acting unusual".

The question therefore becomes how in the event of a coordinated terrorist attack, the media and services can enforce a media blackout in front of an audience of tens of thousands of people, when the bulk of them have social media and are live reporting from the scene where they are are witnessing first hand something happening?

In short, it appears that they currently cannot.  That's not to say, however, that it can't be done.

When the IRA first left a coded warning for a bomb attack at my old high school, the headmaster got a call from the police to evacuate - so they set the fire alarms off.  Later, after we'd had the rest of the day off school and they'd blown up a makeup bag and a few other dodgy looking items, the bomb squad gave the staff hell for this, because the device could have used the fire alarms as the trigger to explode.  So, they came up with a scheme where a person would bang on the classroom doors in each corridor and as we'd all look up at the door's window, there'd be a big sign.  

Unfortunately, the sign was just a big "B" (for "bomb"), so the first time someone banged on the door and we saw this big "B", we didn't evacuate very quickly as we were too busy falling about laughing.  What they should have done is just open the door and say "Bomb alert. Get out".  It's clear. Concise. And there's no messing about.

Going back to terrorist attacks, the UK government should have "a plan" just like this.  The public will largely get on side if they are communicated to properly and are made to understand that when something is going down, to adopt the "blitz spirit" and actually help their country.  The government should just have explained there is a situation, and there is a media blackout to help resolve it quickly, and above all "keep calm".  When you look at what most of Twitter and Facebook was saying, it was a catastrophe of misinformation and rehashed news from hours previously.  

I hope the emergency services and government noticed this, so they can fix it for next time.