The Vienna Attack and the Role of Social Media – 10 Lessons to be Learnt

Patrick Meschenmoser, Wien

On the evening of November 2, 2020, Vienna joined the list of Islamist terrorist attacks. The events highlight again the role of social media in such situations.

The first information that something terrible was going on in my adopted hometown I got via an instant messaging client. A friend had received messages herself about the unfolding events from eyewitnesses, including a video, and shared them with me. It was the beginning of an attack that took place not only in the streets of Vienna but also on social media. During the course of the night, the impact of social networks became apparent in all its facets. Using the hashtag #opendoor, many Viennese offered refuge to anyone stranded in the city. They followed the example of people in Paris, Brussels or Munich that had reacted similarly during attacks in 2016. Restaurants and bakeries invited emergency services to a free coffee, people encouraged each other to stay strong and psychologists offered their support to traumatized people.

The Viennese police, too, showed an impressive performance not only by incapacitating the attacker within nine minutes of being alerted. The state police Twitter, Instagram and Facebook handles quickly established themselves as a reliable source of information and trusted companions on this night of terror. They became breakwaters in a flood of speculation and disinformation. For those who were dependent on mobile information while on the move, this was vital. And even though, the corona pandemic is currently reducing tourism in the city to a minimum, the police also thought of those who do not speak German. Vienna not only is a city in which many residents have a migration background, it also hosts numerous international organizations. Consequently, the first warning about the unfolding events was issued in half a dozen languages. Later, all information was communicated bilingually in both German and English.

The social media channels of the Viennese police are well established for some time and they showed that they are on top of the social media game before. But that was not the only reason their messages became the main source of information for many during the attack. The hashtag #0211w was used very early to draw attention to the relevant messages and reached also those who didn’t follow the accounts before. Social media were also used as a source to support investigations and intelligence. In order to evaluate cell phone videos and photos of the attack, a link was made available to the public through which the material could be uploaded to a protected server. A staggering 20,000 files have been provided so far.

However, this is also where the dark side of social media becomes apparent. Of course, all these videos and photos were shared thousands of times with friends, relatives and the whole world. All calls by authorities to refrain from doing so had only limited effect, although there was a very good reason for the request. The videos not only showed the perpetrator, but also police forces and other information of interest to terrorists. The attacks in Mumbai in 2008 had already shown that terrorists exploit this real-time information for example in order to bypass police units and to coordinate and command the attackers on the ground from remote. The attack in Vienna was most likely committed by a single attacker without any coordination, but for a long time it had to be assumed that there were up to ten active shooters in town.

This confusion about the number of terrorists arose, among other things, from eyewitness reports on social media. Even if there is only one or just a few active shooters who move quickly, the many messages from different attack locations can quickly create the impression of numerous attackers. This increases uncertainty and with that the risk perception in the population and requires the authorities to make great efforts to evaluate the information. Consequently, even the otherwise exceptionally performing Viennese police at some point confirmed that there are several shooters active.

A similar effect could already be observed during the amok run in Munich in July 2016 and is caused by an extremely human reaction. If a terrorist attack takes place in the immediate vicinity and all senses are working at full speed, noises and observations can be quickly misinterpreted. And so, reports about other attack locations are quickly shared which then turn out to be false alarms. For the authorities, this means a skyrocketing number of locations to respond to and an additional burden for emergency services. In Vienna, there were reports of several alleged hostage situations in restaurants and hotels for a long time, none of which have turned out to be true. This becomes dangerous when panic arises from it. In Munich 2016, some people were seriously injured when they fled a restaurant kilometres away from the actual crime scene. Somebody had claimed to hear gunshots. The gunman had already committed suicide by then. Luckily, something similar has not been reported for Vienna so far.

Another problem is eyewitness accounts that actually aren’t. A prominent example is an eyewitness who reported live on Twitter what was happening during the 2009 rampage in Winnenden, Germany, in which 15 people were killed in and around a school. Or so people thought. It turned out that not only was the alleged eyewitness miles away from the action, she was simply repeating information she received from a local radio station. However, some media used these tweets as a primary source and made them the basis of their reporting, unchecked. Something similar could be seen in Vienna. All the videos popping up on social media were, contrary to official requests, shown on a certain TV channel and numerous websites as part of their live reporting. Of course, the rumors of alleged hostage-taking were also diligently spread immediately without confirming the facts before. I deliberately don’t share a link to this.

It’s no surprise that this directly plays into the hands of the terrorists. To them social media are not only an ideal vehicle to coordinate their attacks. They seek to aggravate the fear and uncertainty that are already running high among the population. They spread warnings of further attacks and claim that this is just the beginning. Now these are not rumors anymore, these are dedicated disinformation activities. If users share these rumors and disinformation because they want to warn their family and friends they unintentionally support the work of the terrorists. Whereas this is a perfectly human reaction and can be understood, media outlets that do not comply with their duty of care and publish these false information without checking cannot be excused that easily. And because one of the main reasons for such attacks is propaganda, with every forwarded tweet, with every published video, such users and media make themselves a small cog in the PR and recruiting machinery of the terrorists.

Instant messaging clients such as WhatsApp or Snapchat, through which rumors can be spread quickly among friends or family in chat groups, quite under the radar of any social media monitoring, represent a particular challenge. Often, these rumors only come to light when they are shared on open channels like Instagram or Twitter. During the attack in Vienna, for example, an audio message was distributed stating that the police were staging an operation in the city of Graz because of an impending attack. In India in 2012 a whole terror attack was carried out just by spreading such false reports via WhatsApp causing thousands to self-evacute from a certain region. Numerous people were injured at overcrowded train stations. At the beginning of last year, I published an article titled “Virtual Bombs” specifically about this weaponization of social media.

So what are the lessons that can be learnt from Vienna and similar attacks?

1. An active social media account of local authorities, especially the police, can be an effective and reliable source of mobile information. However, authorities shouldn’t just count on Twitter or Facebook. The younger generation is mostly on Instagram or Tik Tok. Communication must be as timely as possible, even if no details are known yet. The public will understand if authorities are not immediately able to provide details, but it is important that they quickly establish themselves as a reliable source of information.

2. Without reliable information rumors and speculations will build up quickly and can lead to panic reactions.

3. Authorities must be a breakwater in the flood of speculation by releasing only confirmed information.

4. Not everyone speaks the local tongue. In large cities in particular, it is essential to communicate at least in English, too.

5. It is important that all authorities are communicating in a coordinated manner without any contradictions: One message, many voices. Or even better: Predefine a lead account that other authorities cite or refer to during the phase of first response.

6. Relevant hashtags should be established quickly to make it easier to find relevant information.

7. The provision of an upload link for images and videos facilitates evaluation and screening of the material. The link should be published with a note not to share the material on social media.

8. It is crucial to have effective monitoring of the social media channels in place immediately. Only those who know what is being shared on social media can communicate effectively and contain rumors. Instant-messaging clients such as WhatsApp should also be considered in order to debunk rumors and disinformation spread under the radar by sharing solid information on this channel.

9. Terrorists and their supporters will use social media to aggravate uncertainty and fear with disinformation.

10. And the most important thing: Without good preparation in peacetime, rehearsals and well trained social media editors, an effective response to these challenges is not possible.

In the end, however, it is up to all of us not to play into the hands of terrorists by not spreading speculation, passing on rumors or not sharing the likes of videos that could harm the authorities’ response putting people in harm’s way. If we are aware of the mechanisms described, this could help, in the case of, not to make an already difficult situation even worse.

UPDATE November 17, 2020: Police operation logs show that around 150 police officers put themselves on duty and rushed into the city to support their colleagues. In the vast majority they were not uniformed but armed. Eye witness confused attacker and police officers in plain clothes and shared their description on social media. As a consequence the police officers were asked to “mark” themselves in a certain way so that they could be easily recognized on photos or in descriptions.

The protocolls show that members of a special unit of the Viennese police had put the attacker to ground within only nine minutes of the first 911-calls by citizens reporting shots fired. The log entry reads “Perpetrator put to halt with STG 77”, which means that the attacker had been shot using the standard assault rifle. Similar zu the rampage in 2016 in Munich, so much of the confusion that lasted throughout the night until the next morning was caused by rumors, misinterpretation and disinformation shared on social media while the terrorist was long dead already.