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Taking the terror out of terrorism (part 3)

Communicating successfully about terrorism and counter-terrorism is not easy, and inflating the capabilities of either has real-life consequences.

Photo: Getty Images/Mark Makela
Photo: Getty Images/Mark Makela
Published 19 Jan 2017   Follow @DavidWellsCT

This is the third post of a three-part series. For part one, click here, and for part two, click here.

The relationship between terrorism and the media is long and well-established. To achieve their core aim of provoking irrational fear in large groups of people, terrorists have relied on the media to share their message and actions.

While governments cannot control how the media treats any given terrorism news story, it can control the frequency with which the media is able to base a story around a government statement or media release.

Take, for example, the tendency to provide a government response to each terrorist attack overseas, and to explain how Australia is addressing each specific threat. While understandable, there is a danger these responses create a ripple effect, helping to increase the longevity of the public’s exposure to the terrorist threat. And this is exacerbated by the sharing of responsibility for counter-terrorism across multiple departments, agencies and ministers.

After the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22 March 2016, Australian news reports included separate comments from the prime minister, foreign minister, attorney-general, immigration minister and minister assisting the prime minister on counter-terrorism, as well as news of a 'show of force' by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) at Australian airports.

This is just a portion of those who do and should comment on terrorism-related issues. Others include the counter-terrorism ambassador, a counter-terrorism tsar, the Australian Federal Police, State and Territory police and multiple federal intelligence agencies and regulatory bodies.

News outlets know that stories on the activities of Islamic State consistently rank highly on lists of the most read and most viewed news items. In an environment that rewards clicks and engagement, it makes sense for media to seek to maximise the number of terrorism-related news stories that they publish.

In this context, multiple commentaries from multiple departments and ministers (while reflective of the differing responsibilities across the government) may be counter-productive, particularly if the messaging is inconsistent, does not seek to reduce fear, or simply repeats previous material.

Instead, consideration should be given to reducing the frequency with which the government talks about terrorism. One way of achieving this would be to create a centralised press release or response to a particular event or issue. While coordinating the views of multiple departments might be difficult, and potentially slow the process, there would be clear benefits.

Firstly, it would reduce the volume of official commentary, providing a standardised response that would be applicable across multiple media formats. The ability for this to be spun into different news stories over multiple days would be significantly reduced.

The multi-agency and department spread of responsibility also risks producing statements and responses to media queries that lack consistency and coherence. Different or conflicting messages allow the media to choose the one most likely to produce an interesting story or angle. And, as all good advertising agencies know, fear sells. A centralised message should be, by its very nature, consistent.

Consistency and accuracy can be challenging, given the uncertainties surrounding many aspects of terrorist threats, and particularly when the incident is ongoing. Reliable information is scarce, even for those 'in the know', yet the media and public demand immediate answers. Several recent incidents in Australia and elsewhere have highlighted the risks of giving comment on or off the record before key facts are known.

Shifting initial perceptions is difficult – once an attacker’s motivation has been 'identified', the narrative is hard to challenge. Misconceptions about the nature of an attack can add to a narrative that the terrorist threat is out of control. Conversely, violent incidents where terrorism is explicitly and quickly ruled out as the motivating factor attract relatively little media and hence public attention.

Governments should therefore be extremely cautious about labelling an attack as terrorism before a thorough investigation has taken place. Isolated (and notoriously unreliable) eye-witness accounts are no substitute for detailed analysis of seized devices, financial records, and in-depth interviews of friends and associates.

To counter this risk, guidelines should be put in place to ensure that the decision to label an attack as terrorism is only taken once certain questions can be answered, and that the decision to do so is coordinated and approved at a senior level.

Having demonstrated competence and provided a less frequent but more consistent and coherent message, the final element of an improved communications strategy would be to remind the public of their role in countering the terrorist threat. While the ultimate responsibility for counter-terrorism lies with the government, it can only do so with the support of the population.

August 2016 figures from the Metropolitan Police in the United Kingdom provide some indication of the scale of this support. The UK police force receives 3369 'contributions' from the public every day, many of which are crucial to counter-terrorism investigations. In Australia, the 'if you see something, say something' campaign has similarly attempted to harness the collective support of the community at large.

While this type of campaign is unlikely to fundamentally shift an individual’s perception of threat and risk, empowering individuals and reminding them that control lies not just with the government may have a positive impact on perceptions of fear. It can also feed critical intelligence back to counter-terrorism authorities, increasing their competence, and hopefully perceptions of competence.

Communicating successfully about terrorism and counter-terrorism is not easy, and inflating the capabilities of either has real-life consequences. The challenge for governments is to identify the communications sweet-spot: increasing resilience to a terrorist attack without increasing fear of such an attack occurring. Governments should also recognise that in an inter-connected world, government control over their population’s response to a transnational threat is finite.

This limitation shouldn’t dissuade governments from doing better, however. There are ways in which communication strategy can reduce perceptions of fear and limit the extent to which the media can share stories that risk inflating the domestic terrorist threat.

Above all, the strategy should accurately convey the government’s counter-terrorism competence. Knowing that the authorities charged with countering the terrorist threat are equipped to do so should reduce perceptions of fear. In addition to reducing the number of official sources to help ensure messaging is consistent, the language used should be accurate but cautious, particularly when seeking to attribute terrorism as the motivation behind an ongoing or recent incident. Finally, it should actively encourage the general public to contribute to the government’s counter-terrorism mission.

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