by Alessandro Niglia, ATA Senior Program Officer,
during the Denmark Student Delegation Visit to ATA HQ

Good Morning Everyone,

I am also delighted to welcome here at ATA. It is indeed our pleasure to continue this tradition in hosting student delegations every year. I truly hope you will find this meeting very interesting for your studies.

Within my role at the ATA I am leading NATO Project in the framework of the Science and Security Program from NATO. In particular, I am responsible for coordinating diplomatic and scientific programs with the aim of strengthening the cooperation among the Allies.

This entails organizing Workshop, Training Courses and Multiyear Research Project.

Just to give some example, with the support of the ATA staff and our Members we were able to deliver ambitious programs in Georgia and Sweden focusing on Critical Infrastructure Protection.

However, today I would like to present the results of a short research on the use of social media as a tool to build resilience after a terrorist attack.

As we know the last 2 years in this part of Europe and I refer to France and Belgium which have been affected by tragic terrorist attacks developed by both radicalized Muslims groups and individuals. The frequency and the impact of these attacks have triggered a strong reaction from the civil society.

This was evident on social media like Facebook and Twitter. In fact, social media are now a powerful instrument that can be also used to build up an innovative resilience process in terms of communication and information sharing through open sources.

The example I want to bring your attention is the terrorist attacks that occurred on November 2015. This prompted a wide social media response. Indeed, millions of tweets were written in reaction to these events hours after and during the coming days. Facebook and Twitter were the most used platform to communicate about the terrorist attacks. Regarding Facebook for the first time the Safety Check was used. This mechanism allows people who are in the vicinity of the attack or the natural disaster to inform relatives and friends that are not in danger.

With regard to Twitter, it is remarkable the research led by the Qatar Computing Research Institute and the University of Washington. These 2 institutions compiled the vast tweets created in the aftermath of the attack, so as to quantify the public response towards Islam.

This research took in consideration the tweets done between 7 and 50 hours following the Paris attacks.

  • 36 millions of tweets were collected in various languages
  • A subset of 900.000 tweets related to Islam was created.
  • The subset was divided in 3 categories:
    • Tweets Defending Islam or Muslims
    • Tweets Attacking Islam or Muslims
    • Tweets that are Neutral with no visible affiliation.

Just to give you some example of defending and attacking tweets. In the first category we have tweets with #MuslimsAreNotTerrorist, #MuslimStandWithParis, #ThisIsNotIsslam. In the second category we have tweets with #Islamistheproblem, #StopIslam, #Islamttackparis. These are just the some of the top hashtag referring to the positive and negative attitudes towards Muslims.

The main takeaway from this analysis is the location and popularity when comparing the defending and attacking categories. Over half of the 900.000 tweets were in defence of Islam and against associating the attacks to Muslims.

Less than ¼ of the tweets were in attack of Muslims. The majority located in Western countries

This research is particularly useful when it comes to find proper demographics and opinion across countries and the different perception of the events in different regions/continents.

Social Media are not only platforms to express personal opinions, report facts and events but on psychological level social media has created a different spectrum to display human emotions and this creates a much faster and deeper connection than ever. Because of this, Terrorist organization are taking advantage of a more and exposed community to recruit potential fighters for terrorism.

Just to mention what Dr Pamela Rutledge said:

“Social media’s is the terrorist’s best and worst friend”. Through social media we are hardwired to what happens in real time and to what is threatening our environment. Social media has the power to create empathy, which is the precursor to action.

Empathy and emotions like celebration after a terrorist attack are the elements that terrorist groups exploit to recruit allies in this war.

In this regard Governments are now required to counter this phenomenon and for doing so a strong social media communication strategy is needed more than ever.

Communication strategy is relevant for achieving 2 main objectives:

  1. As I said this is instrumental to counter terrorist groups recruitment and new potential affiliations
  2. Help society becoming resilience to these events. This means public needs to be educated on how to se social media and the most cost-effective way to educate society is indeed through a social media campaign.

To this end, 2 elements are necessary: Transparency and trust. As a result, this will create a strong process of empathy between citizens and governments.

To conclude, Social Media, with the correct insights, strategy and implementation, can become a non-governmental tool to build resilience and fight against terrorism on a worldwide scale.