January 17, 2013

Twitter Weaponized: Al-Shabaab and the Latest Offensive in "Social" War

(** graphic **)

HSMPress Twitter Deceased French Solider

In November, I wrote a post about the Israel-Hamas missile clash as a game change for war and social media. With dueling Twit pics of air strike-bloodied babies collapsing the difference between propaganda and physical war, I saw Twitter having literally becoming another battle front.

I started off that post by saying “we can hardly begin to understand” where this will lead. This week, Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia provided the next chapter. Simultaneously physically and digitally retaliating for a French raid, the organization posted images of two dead French soldiers (1, 2) to its HSM Press Office Twitter account.

Certainly, the posting of these pictures will only amplify the debate over Twitter’s role as either host or enabler of such digital and visual aggression. Bag’s Managing Editor Karen Hull summed up that issue in a message she sent me with a link to the tweet:

Jesus. Twitter becomes weaponized. I don’t know the answer as to whether they should be allowed to publish these photos. It’s really asking Twitter to be arbiter of what is valid in terms of death in war and conflict. I don’t trust them to make those decisions. On the other hand, weaponizing Twitter could be a sign that death is now open source.

Perhaps Twitter will turn off the tap. Even if it does, though, I imagine the genie is out of the bottle as regards social platforms and the visual offensive. For the moment, at least, it’s worth noting how Al-Shabaab has used social media and the photo to further undermine any “rules” of engagement while expanding the field of asymmetrical warfare. Specifically, what would have been an abstract narrative, an Al-Qaeda-like outfit stirring up trouble in the North African desert with a few French soldiers lost, now becomes a direct hit in the digital global village.

What the militant’s are attempting to leverage through the digital medium is that emotional terror algorhthym in which perception becomes reality. Along those lines, it’s an extremely effective photo, right down to its caption:

A return of the crusades, but the cross could not save him from the sword.”

To the extent the cross signifies (to a friendly audience, as well as an antagonistic Western one) a cultural and religious, as opposed to a political assault…

To the extent the photo, in its scale and it’s intimacy, suggests this organization, and others like it, can connect to an international audience this way…

And, to the extent the death stare and the fly on the cheek conjures not just more pictorial and visceral, but actual consequences to the French engagement into the region…

it’s an impressive digital strike.

…I should add, the Al-Shabaab twitter feed is almost as savvy in defending its imagery through a running discourse on visual politics. In the course of writing them off as just evil doers, we’re confronted by items like this:

Screen Shot 2013 01 17 at 10 23 00 PM

Paired with images of their victims, the infidels (all part of the offensive) can also pose good questions.

(photo: HSM Press Office ‏@HSMPress/Twitter.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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