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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.)

  • bks3bks

    The revolution will not be twitterized. Twitter is a sham and will always serve the interests of the Corporate Overlords.


  • Seitan_Worshiper

    Perhaps a Content Note/Trigger Warning at the top of the image would be in order? I was not expecting to see an image of death before breakfast.

    • Michael Shaw

      I appreciate your comment and have added a small notice but I have mixed feelings on this. To the extent war has been so sanitized in and by governments and media in the West — and in ways that are also incorporate such self-serving double-standards — I’m actually for “lowering the bar.” I think we can handle the reality, almost ubiquitous as it is. I say this though with the mission of this particular site in mind as well as the fact that the soldier (also strategic on Al Shabaab’s part) looks almost more alive than dead.

  • Seitan_Worshiper


  • Scarabus

    Images (authentic or staged) are always used as instruments of war and propaganda. The question raised here is who gets to control who gets to see (or not see) which images. Remember Bush era policies about photos of Dover Air Force Base and Arlington Cemetery? Photo sharing sites democratize the balance of power. But communicating in images is like communicating in words. The same difficult questions about freedom of speech apply to both.

  • Nemo

    I don’t have a problem with the image. Many of us in North America seem to have no problems with CGI images of violence, but when it is an actual human being, especially a westerner, some of us get upset. Al Shabaab is using social media, to tell THEIR story, to push their own propaganda. Our own mainstream media has been hiding / censoring what happens elsewhere, and pushing a different narrative.

  • Cactus

    I’m getting tired of the meme that Americans can’t take
    disagreeable images – or thoughts. I think this comes from the politicos via
    the media to convince us we really needn’t see the damage done by our WMD’s.
    Soon people begin to think that they really can’t see them because our military
    leaders are doing what it takes to protect us from terrorism. I wonder if they ever think
    how the people feel looking at their dead friends and relatives.

    I believe this political enlightenment started with the Vietnam
    war. We saw the images every night on our TV while eating dinner. And we
    placed our confidence in Walter Cronkite who finally admitted that he was
    fooled, after a quick visit to that country. Eventually it led to the anti-war
    protests. Bush wasn’t going to take any chances.

    Perhaps we Americans should be forced to see the carnage our
    military actions are causing. Would our ‘leaders’ then be free to continue to
    fund the wars? The only thing amping up our exit from Afghanistan is the cost
    in dollars – not carnage.

    Is this propaganda? Quite so. But does that invalidate it as
    a product of war? And I don’t think the delivery system makes any difference.
    Is one expecting censorship on twitter and not on other media? Yes this photo was
    obviously posed. I think we should worry when the images are photoshopped or

  • bill

    What’s everyone’s take on the deceased’s cross jewelry, that appears to have been taken out from inside his shirt and posed? Is this an anti-Christian statement, or is some Somali militant saying “at least he was a religious man”? If you compare the 2 pictures posted, in this one his head appears to have been straightened, in a not-totally-disrespectful manner, not unlike how an undertaker prepares a body.

    The Twitter posted comment for that picture was “A return of the crusades, but the cross could not save him from the sword” almost raising as many questions as it answers.

  • Christine Lorenz

    The *graphic* notice is quite small and at this point basically describes the picture for people who have already seen it. The graphic nature of the image is clear enough in its form as a thumbnail in Facebook. I think there’s a conflict worth discussing here — the graphic quality of the photograph, and how its response is leveraged, is the intended subject of the discussion. But by the time we get to the discussion, we’ve already been played. Why not let us own our participation in the process by putting a NYT-style graphic warning cover on the image? For this site to adopt that tactic has attendant issues in visual politics. But so does rejecting it.

  • Michael Shaw

    Are you saying the presentation of the photo is manipulative? Or (just) that it cancels out a consideration of the political use of the photo? Also, would you be interested in saying more about the “pros” and “cons” of a warning. Certainly, I’m interested in your noting that the warning itself has its issues.

  • Christine Lorenz

    If I’m following this correctly, the photograph of the French soldier (I’m not seeing his name here) was posted by Al-Shabbab as part of a surprisingly sophisticated social media campaign against the West. It stands our among casualty photographs because it is so personal — framed like an ID photo, right in the face, eyes open, confrontational beyond words. I can’t help but feel an emotional response to it, I don’t want to be deadened to that response, and I don’t want to treat this photograph in the same way that I would casualty photographs that are less personal. Certainly it’s a complicated thing to introduce a “modesty cover” as an option for some photographs; it casts a prurient light on them, and puts one in a position of having to spell out criteria for what images would qualify (as opposed to ones that a readership should be told they’re expected to be “able to handle”).
    I’m framing this response in personal “feely” terms because my response
    is personal and emotional, and I don’t want to accept that it’s beyond
    the pale of discussion. It’s a peculiar position to be in, and on another day I can easily imagine myself arguing against what I sound like I’m arguing for in this case.

  • Michael Shaw

    Thinking about it further, there are two different kinds of posts we do here at Bag. One takes a more “native” approach where we encourage you to look at a photo in that “feely” kind of way attempting to look at that image free and clear of the media framing or the political spin/intention. Other times though, we go completely other way, objectifying the photo ourselves for the purpose of illuminating the agenda of the source. (Over the years, by the way, there have been many readers who have been militant that we pursue the former approach only insisting that nobody does the former whereas the latter is more common.)

    I can’t say I remember it happening before, but I can see where you felt this post represented a bait and switch on my part. Thinking through it further – and I appreciate you helping me step to this – I see now the point here is not about sanitization and censorship. Rather, the Bag must be more thoughtful in the future about the presentation of sensitive imagery mindful of what we are asking you to do with it.

  • Christine Lorenz

    Certainly, we come here for analysis. The photograph itself was taken for the purpose of shocking us Western
    media consumers through its dissemination, and I was shocked; I’m the
    sucker, but that doesn’t mean that you were playing their game. Sometimes the post-game analysis blurs into the game itself. I didn’t mean to imply a bait and switch in this case, and I apologize if that’s what I suggested. I certainly don’t expect anything like a sanitized space at the BAG. As a regular reader since 2004, I appreciate the depth of analysis that takes place here, and the detachment that such analysis requires. And if the image had been presented with a click-through warning or such like, I would most likely have clicked through it, and might have had something to say about the use of the cross necklace, but discussion went in another direction.
    For what it’s worth, this is an issue that comes up from time to time in classes that I teach, where students bring in a variety of images to discuss in relation to issues of importance to them. It shifts the discussion that is possible when people have a gruesome picture in front of them, and we have to talk about how that changes things. Bur there’s a higher standard for the discussion here; readers can indeed handle it. This is where I would want to go to talk about what it does to use these images as psychological warfare. We have to look at the pictures to talk about that. I just want to raise the possibility that such an image of the dead might merit slightly different handling. Certainly not censorship.

  • Michael Shaw

    No worries. I think you raised an important point in contexualizing the presentation as opposed to the image. Now for that warning thing-a-ma-bob, I’ll have to bring that up with the designers.

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