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Kenya’s Westgate attack: social media in the days of tragedy

The last 72 hours have gripped Africa in terror as the world waits for news on the current hostage situation in Kenya. Several Twitter accounts claiming responsibility for the attack on a Nairobi shopping mall were suspended after providing running commentary of the attack via the social network.

The 36-hour siege, which has left at least 68 people dead and several injured, began on Saturday. Terrorist group Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM) has demanded that Kenya pull its troops out of its northern neighbour state Somalia, “where they have pushed al-Shabab onto the defensive over the past two years,” reports Reuters.

The name of Nairobi’s Westgate Mall is now dominating Twitter’s global trends list. Social media has become the first point of information for people when it comes to disasters and a threat to national security. The use of social media among individuals to find out information as well as the use of social media among authorities to inform the public is becoming the norm.

In the case of Kenya, social media is not only being used to inform citizens, it has also been used to justify the violence.

In the last three days, “Westgate” has been mentioned more than 300 000 times on Twitter, with conversations peaking on the first day of the attack (21st of September), according to social analytics provider Topsy. Words like Kenya, Nairobi and the solidarity phrase “We are one” have also seen heavy mentions on Twitter in the last three days.

Kenya Westgate bombing

Westgate bombing location

Overall activity on Twitter relating to Kenya and Westgate is in the region of 700 000 mentions, with dominating tweets from Kenya and the United States.

Kenya Westgate bombing location

Tweeting terrorists: the new face of rebellion

The group that has claimed responsibility for the attack on Westgate Mall not only wanted the to world to watch the horror but invited them to follow it on Twitter. The group, which has been tweeting from various accounts with ‘HSMPress’ in the name, has seen its accounts suspended by Twitter several times. An account (which is currently still active) explains that it has not mentioned any of the names of the attackers, which would serve as confirmation of involvement in illegal activities — justification for Twitter to suspend the account.

Not only was the group tweeting, it was using hashtags and engaging in the conversation.

The HMSPress Office account, which has put itself in charge of explaining and chronicling the attacks in the last 72 hours, has offered information from within Westgate as it claims to be communicating with the attackers. This began on Saturday with tweets like these:

“The Mujahideen entered #Westgate Mall today at around noon and are still inside the mall, fighting the #Kenyan Kuffar (infidels) inside their own turf.”

“The attack at Westgate Mall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders.”

Despite Twitter’s attempts to block the group’s various accounts, its determination to tweet the siege has lead to new accounts being created each time one is suspended:

“#Westgate: a 14-hour standoff relayed in 1400 rounds of bullets and 140 characters of vengeance and still ongoing. Good morning Kenya!” the group posted.

“It’s slowly approaching the 24-hour mark – the darkest 24 hours in Nairobi – highlighting the sheer fragility of the Kenyan nation.”

Though several reports have come from the Kenyan government suggesting that it is confident that the terrorists will be defeated by tonight at the latest, the HSM Press Twitter account seems to beg to differ:

Government forces on Twitter

Kenya’s police forces have continued to update the public via their Twitter account since Saturday. The account has been tweeting frequently, urging citizens to stay away from Westgate as well as advise them to only trust information from the authorities.

Right now a large portion of the information available to the public is being dispensed through social media. The police service’s Facebook page, which was created just over a week ago, has also been used to inform the public. The page announced that due to the efforts of its “multi-agency team”, the police had “managed to rescue some hostages. We’re increasingly gaining advantage of the attackers.”

On the use of social, the Kenyan Police and its Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government in the Office of the President must be commended. The government departments have been expedient in their use of Twitter: informing and managing the public morale in 140 characters.

The dark side of social

Despite its use to inform and educate the public, an attack like this creates frenzy and fear, which can make social media a dangerous tool at a time like this. Social media can be the source of misinformation and a proponent of panic. For example, earlier this year during the aftermath of the Boston bombings, rumours spread through Twitter and Reddit about who was responsible for the attacks. A single tweet containing unverified information that turned out to be false caused chaos.

In the case of Kenya, authorities have been very adamant on reinforcing the importance of verifying information. Even the HSM Press Office account urges journalists to not just repeat information but to verify it first:

What’s quite interesting here is there is a lot of information coming out of Kenya but there is no sure fire way to verify the information. A faceless page claiming to be in cahoots with the terrorists, dispensing information it says is communicated from within Westgate, is still a faceless page without proof.

In an age where trolling is expected and people hijack hashtags to meet their own ends, it’s hard to truly say what is what and who is telling the truth.

Nation building in the face of disaster: #weareone

There has been a heavy demand for blood since the siege began, with the official Twitter account of the Kenyan Red Cross urging citizens to donate blood to help victims of the attack.

For those who can’t donate, Kenya’s largest mobile operator, Safaricom, has urged people to donate money instead through its mobile money platform M-PESA:

“Let us come together to support victims and families of the #Westgate Mall Tragedy by donating on M-PESA PayBill 848484,” the operator posted yesterday on its official Facebook Page.

“In keeping with our commitment to positively impact the lives of Kenyans- we have set up a special Zero Rated PayBill Number 848484 to coordinate the fundraising effort towards the medical care and support of the victims of the Westgate Mall Tragedy. These funds will be administered by our partners; The Kenya Red Cross Society. I urge you to support this in any way you can,” said Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore.

According to Safricom, more than 100 000 Kenyans have contributed on M-PESA so far. “Monies sent range from 10 bob to Kshs. 50 000 Abbas Gullet sets target at Kshs. 80 million Funds to go towards emergency evacuation crisis operations,” said the company.

Safaricom has changed its Facebook cover photo to depict the Kenyan flag with the #weareone, a hashtag growing in popularity, which asks all Kenyans to stand in solidarity in the aftermath of the attack.

we are one

Author | Mich Atagana

Mich Atagana
Mich started out life wanting to be a theoretical physicist but soon realized that mathematics was required. So, she promptly let go of that dream. She then decided that law might be the best place for her talents, but with too many litigation classes missed in favour of feminist... More


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  3. Kenyan

    September 25, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    SO you couldn’t even acknowledge @RobertAlai because you don’t agree with him? Why all these pettiness in Africa?

  4. Mich Atagana

    September 25, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    Hi Kenyan, I don’t think it is correct to say we left Robert Alai out. If you noticed the piece focused on the terrorist’s use of social media, how government forces and organisation used it. The broad out look of the piece was to take a closer look what it means to be online in the days of tragedy. No Individuals were mentioned.

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