The Sydney siege gunman failed to take over social media outlets, as users, companies and law enforcement collaborated in a new development for such Web sites.
After traditional media outlets refused to air or print details of telephone calls his hostages made, suspected gunman Man Haron Monis turned to Facebook and YouTube, forcing his captives to use their personal accounts to issue his demands to speak to the prime minister and spread claims that he had planted bombs around Sydney.
Those messages never went viral.
Not only were social media companies communicating with Australian police to block posts, but also, the broader online community practiced self-censorship to a degree that surprised many experts.
“This was a new situation for us,” said a source at one social media company, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with reporters.
“Even as we tried to track down what was coming from where and whether it was genuine, there were a good deal of people reporting posts and just refusing to pass things on,” he added.
Police killed Monis, a self-styled Muslim sheik, when they stormed the Lindt Chocolate Cafe early on Tuesday morning to free hostages held at gunpoint for 16 hours.
Police are investigating whether two hostages who also died were killed by Monis.
The siege, believed by social media sources to be unique in how the hostage-taker used captives to try to disseminate his message for several hours, showed that social media had “grown up,” experts said.
The behavior of most Internet users during the crisis contrasted with notions of new media outlets as a “Wild West” where vigilantes — such as those who spread unverified and ultimately incorrect images on Reddit.com of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers — had free reign.
“Here was a guy who had the eyes of the world on him thanks to the live video feed [of the cafe] and he couldn’t get a tweet or a Facebook post to resonate,” said Stephen Dann, senior lecturer in the research school of management at the Australian National University in Canberra.
“I think the message for others trying the same tactic is that social media is more socially responsible than many had thought,” Dann said.
As the siege unfolded, several frightened hostages recorded YouTube videos using cafe worker Joel Herat’s account, which were then flagged on Twitter. Others posted updates on Facebook.
Facebook Inc, Google Inc-owned YouTube and Twitter Inc all declined to comment in detail, saying they were part of a formal inquiry into the incident.
“During the situation on Monday, we responded to the direction and instructions from law enforcement and we will continue to cooperate with their ongoing investigation,” a Facebook spokeswoman said.
The first Facebook post from Marcia Mikhael, a bank worker, read: “Dear friends and family, I’m at the Lindt Cafe at Martin Place being held hostage by a member of the ISIS. The man who is keeping us hostage has asked for small and simple requests and none have been met. He is now threatening to start killing us. We need help right now. The man wants the world to know that Australia is under attack by the Islamic State.”
Mikhael’s niece quickly added a plea to the page, urging people not to share any messages released by the hostages, “as the terrorist is using them as a means of communication. This could put my aunty and the others in grave danger.”
Most users complied and many reported Mikhael’s posts, resulting in them being removed. Facebook was also able to monitor accounts with a list of relevant names provided by police.
YouTube’s content complaint got rapid warning of videos in which four female hostages outlined Monis’ demands.
The “flags” available to users to report unlawful or inappropriate content include one aimed at blocking content that promotes terrorism.
“The majority of the videos were flagged by the YouTube community very, very fast, and we were able to take them down very quickly,” a YouTube source said.
A source with knowledge of Twitter’s response said it was unaware of any tweets from the hostages, although some users tweeted links to YouTube videos.
Twitter pointed users toward official users, such as the New South Wales Police Force. Many users promoted those accounts and prompted others not to retweet any videos.
“It was a level of self-censorship by users that was nothing that Twitter was involved in directly,” the source said.
Monis’ attempt may have not only failed, but also backfired. Police gained critical information about what was happening inside the cafe from the updates.
However, while Monis failed to manipulate social media, a single Sydney train commuter promoting solidarity with Muslims on her Facebook page had a huge impact.
The hashtag “#IllRideWithYou” went viral, as tweets pledged support for any Australian Muslims traveling on public transport who felt vulnerable because of any possible community backlash.
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