Twitter in the cross fire--the use of social media in the Westgate Mall terror attack in Kenya.

Research paper by Tomer T Simon, Avishay A Goldberg, Limor L Aharonson-Daniel, Dmitry D Leykin, Bruria B Adini

Indexed on: 26 Aug '14Published on: 26 Aug '14Published in: PloS one


On September 2013 an attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya led to a four day siege, resulting in 67 fatalities and 175 wounded. During the crisis, Twitter became a crucial channel of communication between the government, emergency responders and the public, facilitating the emergency management of the event. The objectives of this paper are to present the main activities, use patterns and lessons learned from the use of the social media in the crisis. Using TwitterMate, a system developed to collect, store and analyze tweets, the main hashtags generated by the crowd and specific Twitter accounts of individuals, emergency responders and NGOs, were followed throughout the four day siege. A total of 67,849 tweets were collected and analyzed. Four main categories of hashtags were identified: geographical locations, terror attack, social support and organizations. The abundance of Twitter accounts providing official information made it difficult to synchronize and follow the flow of information. Many organizations posted simultaneously, by their manager and by the organization itself. Creating situational awareness was facilitated by information tweeted by the public. Threat assessment was updated through the information posted on social media. Security breaches led to the relay of sensitive data. At times, misinformation was only corrected after two days. Social media offer an accessible, widely available means for a bi-directional flow of information between the public and the authorities. In the crisis, all emergency responders used and leveraged social media networks for communicating both with the public and among themselves. A standard operating procedure should be developed to enable multiple responders to monitor, synchronize and integrate their social media feeds during emergencies. This will lead to better utilization and optimization of social media resources during crises, providing clear guidelines for communications and a hierarchy for dispersing information to the public and among responding organizations.