How to turn social media into an ally against terrorism

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Gianluca Riglietti, Head of Research & Intelligence at PANTA RAY

Social media can be a double-axed sword when it comes to the prevention and response to a terrorist attack. In the last few days we have witnessed how the actions of an individual, allegedly linked to white supremacist groups, has caused the death of 50 people in a Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand [1].

As in several previous attacks (regardless of their motivations), the shooter’s social media activities consisted of racial slurs and violent rhetoric, which begs the question of why this didn’t raise any eyebrows among the authorities. Governments are becoming increasingly attentive towards the monitoring of social media to prevent political violence, which in the last few years has led to several plots being foiled by law enforcement throughout the world.

For instance, in 2017 the Italian police arrested an IS supporter for publishing online material that promoted terrorism [2], while in the UK Parliament there is currently a motion to devote more budget to the counter-terrorism social media monitoring unit of the Metropolitan Police [3]. Similarly, near misses were registered in countries such as Australia and France, where police forces used social media platforms to prevent further tragedies [4][5][6].

While there is a fine line between monitoring threats and protecting citizens’ privacy, social media have surely proven their criticality in the fight against terrorism. While the public sector seems to be already using these new platforms to monitor threats, it would be interesting to observe to what extent private organizations are doing the same. Recent studies show that private organizations are already using social media platforms both during their risk assessments and to gather information while an incident is unfolding, including in the case of terrorist attacks [7].

However, it is understandable that some are still skeptical towards these new tools, as gathering intelligence through social media can present significant challenges in terms of information reliability. Hence, professionals might want to think about how they can embed social media monitoring in their processes. Here are some useful ideas and guidelines to think about:

  1. The extent to which the organization is already using social media;
  2. How to validate and triangulate the information gathered on social media;
  3. What kind of software, if any, the organization is currently using to monitor social media;
  4. Who should own social media monitoring within the organization;
  5. How and when to escalate to top management.

As the place of these tools in the wider resilience ecosystem is still to be determined, there is need for further discussion on this topic, which could be achieved through further research and initiatives from professionals in the industry.


[1] https://edition.cnn.com/2019/03/15/asia/new-zealand-christchurch-attack-what-we-know-intl/index.html

[2] https://tg24.sky.it/milano/2019/03/14/milano-apologia-terrorismo-facebook-condanna.html

[3] https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/50469/metropolitan-polices-counterterrorist-social-media-monitoring-unit

[4] https://www.france24.com/en/20180518-french-government-france-foiled-suspected-terror-attack

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/dec/05/nine-terrorist-attacks-prevented-in-uk-in-last-year-says-mi5-boss

[6] https://www.news.com.au/national/crime/the-11-imminent-terror-attacks-australia-narrowly-escaped/news-story/86fc734df0963e21fe038c0eecce7d80

[7] BCI Horizon Scan 2019

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PANTA RAY is a training and management consulting firm, specialized in organizational resilience. 

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