Terrorist incidents in Western countries now produce a highly ritualised response, and that applies to social media as well.
We grow traditions and rituals fast these days. It must be the internet. We’ve now ossified into a satisfactorily kabuki-like set of reactions to terrorist events in Western countries. After any atrocity, most of the following will now happen:
The mainstream media will continue further down the path of abandoning the one edge it has over social media, a reputation for greater reliability, by rushing to misreport important details of the attack or, in the case of The New York Post, virtually every detail of the attack. (At some point, consumers will realise that when it comes to breaking news, the mainstream media is slower, more expensive and no more accurate than social media. Those few mainstream media outlets than can afford to maintain standards, usually because they’re publicly funded, like the ABC, will stand out ever more as trusted sources.)
Australian media will desperately search for an Australian angle on the tragedy, with journalists, editors and producers desperately looking for any Australians “caught up in the terror”. Failing that, they’ll simplify these complex events into childish narratives focusing on individuals, usually with some uplifting dimension, because evidently readers and viewers can only process major events if they’re portrayed like a movie. The same process will occur in every Western country other than the one in which the attack occurred.
“Terrorism experts” will emerge onto television screens and opine about the causes and nature of the attack, in the process revealing that they have absolutely nothing useful to say. If “terrorism experts” aren’t available, the local village idiot, like Alan Jones, will be pressed into service.
Someone on the Right, ignoring the lesson of Anders Breivik, will immediately blame Muslims.
In the gap between news of the attack and an accurate identification of its perpetrator, Western Muslims and progressives will fervently pray it’s not a Muslim.
Progressives will (correctly) note, usually via social media, that many multiples of the number of innocent victims in Western terror attacks die every day in incidents in non-Western countries, sometimes in attacks carried out by Western governments, but no one pays any attention to them.
Conspiracy theorists will rapidly emerge and, regardless of common sense or for that matter basic decency, instantly begin constructing lunatic theories involving government/ corporate/ UN/ Illuminati/ fluoridation agents, especially if some totemic unidentified figure can be found (“the man on the roof” is the new “gunman on the grassy knoll”).
If it’s in America, Westboro Church will emerge to add the funerals of the victims to its busy schedule of funerals to protest.
Representatives of industries that stand to benefit from greater defence or security spending will instantly demand greater defence or security spending. Former IRA supporter and fundraiser and now dogged advocate of the War on Terror Republican Congressman Peter King has already demanded more security cameras in the US in the wake of the Boston attack.
That’s not to say the tragedy in Boston doesn’t have its singular aspects. There is a vast wealth of picture and video evidence from the scene of the attack, courtesy not merely of the now-normal reverse-Panopticon of citizen-touted mobile phone cameras, but from its occurrence at a major event. This will in fact encourage conspiracy theorists, rather than undermining their efforts, as it will throw up far more irrelevant and meaningless material for wingnuts to focus on as “not quite right”.
But it will also enable millions of amateur sleuths to start poring over phone images, CCTV and press images of the event and parading their results online, identifying a range of possible suspects. Crowd-sourced investigation is here. And that isn’t meant as mockery — get used to it. Ask the Steubenville r-pists, or the alleged r-pists of Rehtaeh Parsons, who are currently the subject of an Anonymous investigation, whether online crowds can be more effective than police forces.
How useful social media forensics will be remains to be seen. It might be bad news for people filmed in the wrong spot, with the wrong clothes, or with the wrong expression. One Boston “suspect” identified on Reddit is the “blue robe guy”, which makes the man concerned sound like a sinister follower of some religious cult, who was filmed “clenching” his backpack, as of course you would if it was laden with explosives. Oh, and he has a beard.
In short, social media means that what was once the prerogative of governments, politicians and the mainstream media — exploiting terrorism — has now been democratised. We can all do it, right here at home.