War and tweets: What we’ve learned from the Orlando shootings about how best to respond to terrorist attacks

War and tweets: What we’ve learned from the Orlando shootings about how best to respond to terrorist attacks


By Sharon E. Burke
Best Defense climate czarina 

One week after the June 12, 2016, shootings at Pulse nightclub, 50,000 people crowded into Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando for a vigil. As the crowd chanted “peace, love, hope,” candles clutched in their hands, an actual rainbow appeared in the sky overhead. A great cheer erupted.

“I hope that Orlando continues to show what a kind city it is,” local resident Kelley Irvin told an Orlando Sentinel reporter covering the vigil. “I think that kindness will really heal the city.”

Orlando offers a case study in resilience, which may seem like a fluffy and friendly term, but it’s really not. The whole point of terrorism, after all, is to provoke an emotional reaction in a wider population, beyond the actual victims of an attack. The perpetrators of such attacks want you to be afraid and angry. They want you or your government to do something you wouldn’t otherwise do. They do not want you to react with peace, love, and hope.

Since 9/11, individuals affiliated with or inspired by foreign and domestic violent extremist groups have killed 147 Americans. No doubt, U.S. intelligence, defense, and law enforcement agencies have prevented many other attacks, but terrorism nonetheless remains a fact of modern American life. Resilience, therefore, is an important part of the nation’s counterterrorism strategy.

The reasons Orlando was able to absorb adversity relatively well in the face of a terrible attack may be instructive for other cities.

First, leadership matters. Even in an era when social media can define a story before traditional news media or government officials can comment, officials and law enforcement remain an authoritative source of information in a crisis. How and when officials release information will strongly influence the public’s response.

Orlando was fortunate to have an experienced mayor who had considered public communications an important part of preparedness ever since Hurricane Charley in 2004. Mayor Buddy Dyer also made a conscious decision to project a calm tone and release as much information as possible, as soon as possible, keeping the focus on the victims. He and his team thought carefully about how to stage press conferences to reinforce these decisions, inviting speakers they hoped would help forestall an angry response, particularly against Muslim-Americans.

The mayor also did more than keep city residents informed; he gave them agency, urging them to show the world that this attack did not define Orlando. The people of Orlando responded. A local blood bank made an urgent appeal for blood donors, for example, which was rebroadcast by social media, local press, and national media. More than 28,000 people responded, sometimes waiting in long lines.

Along with leadership, social media matters more and more every day. With the volume and pace of social media, Orlando officials could have easily found themselves playing defense, largely just reacting to an avalanche of information. Instead, law enforcement and city officials actively used social media as a tool to shape press coverage and directly reach the public. If the attack had happened in the middle of the day, lasted longer, or involved multiple shooters, however, the information demands would have been even more overwhelming. This points to the importance of preparedness, including for strategic communications and social media, which should play a prominent part in any exercises or training for crises. City officials have to be ready for the quick pace at which traditional and social media will spread the news of an attack or the story will get away from them.

It’s not only law enforcement officials who use social media to communicate with the public in the wake of an attack, of course; victims, eyewitnesses, and even perpetrators can, too, as was the case in Orlando. Increasingly, social media companies are facing difficult choices between dangerous terrorist speech and graphic images online and freedom of expression. Live streaming capabilities have already made those hard choices even harder. Claims that some companies make that they are not responsible for unfettered discussion on their sites will ring hollow when something goes wrong, as with Reddit’s shameful treatment of Sunil Tripathi, a student wrongly accused in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

These companies should acknowledge the de facto role they are playing as the mass media of choice for many people and be proactive about adopting standards and responsibilities and helping public officials understand the potential for constructive uses for social media in crisis response. The First Draft Coalition, a group of social media sites and projects, has for example launched an effort toward improving “eyewitness media” and “raising awareness and improving standards around the use of content sourced from the social web.”

With the rise of social media, traditional news media is no longer the sole gatekeeper for breaking news coverage, but the press still has a strong influence over public responses to terrorism. In Orlando, local reporters, as part of the community, played a particularly important role in shaping resilience. For both local and national press, many of the decisions about what to air or print and how to tell the story remain a matter of personal judgment, however, and public safety is not always going to be a universal priority in the competitive news environment.

At the same time, media organizations continue to play an important role in holding public officials accountable: if officials bypass them reaching the public directly through social media, who will play that role? Will accountability be crowdsourced or hashtagged in the future? That may be an unreasonable expectation, given how much misinformation has spread through social media in past attacks.

Regardless of whether the news is conveyed on television or online, the awful truth is that terrorism is often effective in generating publicity and provoking emotions and reactions. So, civic resilience to terrorism should be a counterterrorism priority and the responsibility of city governments, law enforcement officials, social media companies, journalists, and members of the public, who ultimately get to choose how they react to an attack. Orlando offers one example of how a community can choose to be resilient.

Sharon E. Burke, a senior advisor at New America, served as the assistant secretary of Defense for operational energy from 2010 to 2014. When the spirit moves, she writes the “Natural Security” column and other stuff for Best Defense. The article is adapted from a forthcoming New America report, “War and Tweets: Terrorism in America in the Digital Age,” which will be released on October 25, 2016, in a public event with the Mayor of Orlando, CNN’s Juliette Kayyem, and Senate Armed Services Committee Counsel and Policy Advisor, Katie Wheelbarger. Details for those wishing to attend can be found here.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images