The siege at Westgate Mall made news not just on local and international news stations but on social media as well. Most people found out about the siege through social media and witnesses also confessed having doing the same thing while in hiding from the suspected Al Shabaab terrorists waiting to be rescued by the Kenya Defence Forces. For most people Twitter was the tool of choice and that included the Kenyan Defence Forces and the Harakat al–Shabaab al-Mujahideen.
Red Cross must be and should be commended for their use of social media to assist in all aspects of this tragedy that befell Kenya. It was through this platform that people were able to get help for the injured, locating missing members, donate blood and other materials to help those affected by this heinous act. Twitter proved to be the fastest way to send messages out to the public. Kenya Defence Forces also used twitter to both update and reassure Kenyans that they are in control of the situations amid scepticism.
The Cabinet Affairs account was also active during this dark hour for Kenyans along with the Disaster Operations Centre giving updates on what was happening on the ground to Kenyans and the international community.
Most notably however were the many blunders committed by Kenyan media houses, some going as far as to broadcast the locations of civilians in Westgate mall who had communicated their whereabouts in the hope of being rescue by the Kenyan Defence Force. It was in this time the security forces cautioned the media against airing sensitive information that may jeopardize the lives of those left trapped within the building. This is especially the case after a picture was aired of the armed terrorists holding what appeared to be mobile phones in their hands (see image above).
The media, both local and international, in some cases lacked of ability to differentiate between sensitive information and what was morally right to report. It is for this reason they were pushed back from Westgate to avoid more errors. After the first 24 hours little or no information was given to the media and by extension the public in the hope to keep the strategic plans of the Kenyan defence team from leaking to the terrorist. Such moments of vacuum left room for speculation and misinformation. This was the case for Henna who was mistaken for Samantha Lewthwaite ‘White Widow’, a British terrorist whose husband was responsible for the London train bombings.
It is in times like these where social media works against the truth. International news centres were also involved in the speculation bringing expert sources to comment on the matter.
Along with the freedom of expression, many other freedoms were violated during this time. The right of privacy and decency was specially ignored as horrifying and gory images circulated in the media and online platforms. The deceased and injured were featured, leaving family members and those who knew them shocked and grieved by finding out about their love ones state in such an insensitive manner.
Social media was also used as a ‘complaining’ tool as many stated they had to turn to international news agencies for information as the local media was not providing adequate information. This hunger for information pushed many to generate their own views about what was happening and many mistook this for the truth. The government was also giving contradicting information about those who died in the attacks as well as those injured through their social media page.
Twitter officials were also quick to act and suspend the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM) twitter accounts. A sixth was however opened hours later and gained more than 3700 followers in less than 15 hours. This is a typical case of empowering the wrong people.
Social media took centre stage in keeping Kenyans informed during the four day siege that ended in victory for Kenyans. Most of all, the greatest thing that could ever have come out of this barbaric assault on innocent people was that it united Kenyans. Messages of hope, condolence and quick recovery were sent along with prayers of healing through social media. Even more it united people from all religions. Al Shabaab was even publicly disowned by their Muslim counterparts. In the coming months it is is worth waiting to see what new role social media will play against the war on terror.
Glass House PR would like to send their condolences to those who lost loved ones in the Westgate Mall attack. For those who were injured and are in or out of hospital we wish you a quick recovery. Those with missing members may God comfort you in this time of distress. To our Kenyan Defence Forces and those who lost their lives to protect fellow citizens, we salute you. To everyone who helped a brother or sister in any way during this tragedy, may God bless you. Let us now work together to heal our nation.