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Israeli experts say social media posts may have put lives at risk

By GATONYE GATHURA | September 16th 2014
 Westgate victims scamper for safety during the terror attack. Israeli experts say terrorists received live information detailing the armed response. [PHOTO: FILE]

Kenya: The social media presented a serious security breach during the Westgate attack and may have helped prolong the siege, Israeli emergency experts have said.

An audit of 67,849 tweets during the four-day siege concludes that by tweeting real-time visual and textual information, reporters and bystanders may have put the lives of security and emergency personnel at great risk.

"This may have endangered the lives of the responders and might have contributed to the prolonged siege," says the study published at Ben-Gurion University on August 25 in the journal Plos One.

The team from the Centre for Emergency Response Research at the university says the terrorists received live information detailing the armed response against them and were able to use this to enhance their response. In one instance, the study says the Kenya Police had to ask a Twitter user to delete a message that contained pictures of military helicopters preparing to launch an attack on the mall.

During the first day of the attack, two unique tweets were posted, claiming to show pictures of the attackers. These messages were re-tweeted 106 times, 81 of them within 30 minutes.

"We found that these pictures were not of the attackers but rather of the Kenyan armed forces. The photos were removed after two days."

The team demonstrates how Twitter, which was the tool of choice in communicating the Westgate attack, even by the mainstream media, had quickly developed into a nightmare for not only the security forces but even among ordinary Kenyans. "One bystander tweeted: 'Why is our media showing the cops sneaking in?'" the study quotes one of the tweets.

The team says it had monitored, collected, stored and analysed Twitter information throughout the siege and confirmed that the use of social media during urban terror attacks leads to breaches of security. Twitter was picked because it was the dominant social media platform used during the siege. The Kenya Police tweeted 569 times during the entire crisis, while posting only ten times on Facebook. The unit had 20,267 followers on Twitter but only 2,506 fans on Facebook. The Ministry of Interior used its Twitter accounts 1,533 times while not posting a single message on their Facebook page.

Al-Shabaab tweeted 258 times between September 21 and September 25 and claimed responsibility for the Westgate attack through Twitter.


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