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Terror in the age of Twitter

We all need our quick news fix, but the fact frenzy amplifies the impact of an attack, and that's just what the bad guys want

Journalism entered a new phase last week. The ongoing saga of the Boston Marathon bombing provided mainstream news networks and social media outlets alike with an unfamiliar, first of its kind challenge: minute-by-minute reporting.

Even before any actual reports were verified, thousands of Twitter accounts continually chirped out 140 character sound bites on the suspects’ whereabouts while Facebook sidebars globally stacked links to articles assessing the alleged bombers’ current condition. A few hours after security forces exchanged gunfire with the criminals, the Boston Globe published a full-length, two page profile of the brothers Tsarnaev, complete with childhood stories, favorite pastimes and, of course, suggested motives. By noon that day, CNN, Fox News and the Huffington Post joined in with their own elaborate analyses.

I found myself incessantly combing the web for any new scrap of information that might shed light on the attackers’ identities or their intentions. Like many, I scrambled between internet sites and news feeds, sifting through the latest updates on police estimations, victims’ medical status and interviews with the terrorists’ family members.

The extraordinary amount of excessive, often useless, and sometimes downright false information I came across throughout the coverage of the event was remarkable. Slate Magazine’s Farhad Manjoo keenly observed that readers who received only a daily digest were likely better informed on the weekend’s developments than news addicts who were glued to their screens. Given the nature of this specific story, the public’s constant thirst for information, no matter how inconsequential, may have actually cause damaged while attempting to deal with terrorism.

Terrorism feeds off publicity.

It is a mistake to assume that terrorists solely seek to bleed or butcher their opponents’ civilian masses. Suicide and pipe bombings, shootings and rocket attacks generally claim less casualties than a full on war. The number of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, eclipses the number of lives lost in the World Trade Center attacks. But evaluating terrorism’s affectivity based on the number of casualties it has claimed would entirely miss the point.

Terrorism works because it strikes fear and uncertainty in the public’s heart. It is no coincidence that the bombings took place exactly where they did. Charles Krauthammer points out that, “at the finish line there would be not only news cameras but also hundreds of personal videos to amplify the message.”

An amplified message is all that is needed to induce fear. And this is what helps terrorists achieve their true goals.

So, what to do? Obviously, imposing a general gag order in this day and age is both unwise and impossible.

Israel’s censorship of the so-called Prisoner X affair last February is a case in point. The beating around the bush and obvious avoidance of the subject by Israeli news sites, even as foreign and social media outlets had already exposed the story in all its juicy details, made the Israeli government look weak and frantic, even repressive.

Furthermore, even if all major news corporations in America were to jointly agree to withhold reports of a terrorist attack, one tweet by one bystander is all it would take, and the story would immediately go viral.

As a journalist, I firmly believe that the public has a right to know, even if some knowledge may be hard to swallow. But I sometimes wonder about the constant connectivity —a product of the age in which we live. It seems like we must always satisfy our obsessive need to know. While this neediness has problematic psychological implications, it usually does not pose any immediate threat.

Providing information is one thing; ceaseless repetition, amplification, and speculation, has less to do with reporting facts than with competition for a larger share of audience. When belaboring an issue plays right into the hands of those who seek to do us wrong, further caution is necessary. We must work together as a society to think about alternative ways in which we can fulfill the thirst we have all developed for instant information. Not only will this help us avoid obsessing over minute changes in news updates, it will ultimately prevent us from egging on terrorism, and other threats to society.

About the Author
Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel and has written for Makor Rishon and Haaretz. He currently lives in Jerusalem and is studying economics and comparative religion at Hebrew University.