September 29, 2013

The tweet that shook Portland’s Somalis

Stereotypes and fears are brought to the surface when Maine gets tied to a terrorist attack in Kenya.

By J. Craig Anderson
Staff Writer

and Eric Russell
Staff Writer

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click image to enlarge

Mohammed Dini, director of the African Diaspora Institute, says Somali-Americans feel a backlash from media reports about a possible connection with the Kenya mall attack.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

The morning after the Sept. 21 attack commenced, the media reported that the FBI was investigating whether al-Shabab was trying to recruit Somalis in Portland, citing an incident dating back to 2007 in the Minneapolis-St, Paul area, where at least 40 Somali-Americans were known to have been recruited by the terrorist group.

There are more than 80,000 immigrants from Somalia in the Minneapolis area and roughly 6,000 in southern Maine.

Also on Sept. 21, a handful of European blogs posted versions of a list of alleged participants in the attack. Each of the published lists contained nine to 17 names and places of origin, including three to six people described as being from the U.S.

Included in some of the longer lists was a person described as being "from Maine, US."

Within hours, media outlets, including the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, began reporting on the alleged Maine connection to the attack, citing both analyst statements and the publication of a list of alleged participants. The Press Herald did not publish the names because they could not be independently verified.

Efforts to verify the identity of the Maine name turned up no evidence that the person existed.

Most news articles were skeptical about the list, which reportedly came from a now-suspended al-Shabab Twitter account. Still, the possible connection to Maine and other U.S. states, including Minnesota, Illinois and Arizona, became a major national news story.

Journalism ethics professor Robert Dreschel said the mainstream media's decision not to repeat the names on the list was wise, although it may not have prevented harm to Somali communities.

"It goes beyond that into casting an aspersion on an entire community," said Dreschel, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The ability of digital social media to spread information quickly and the pressure on news outlets to get the story first can create a "lethal combination," he said.

But, he said, the demand for immediacy in reporting, especially online, works against that ideal.

"Everybody else is going with it, so now what do you do?" Dreschel said.


If al-Shabab did tweet the list of alleged attackers, it was not the first time the terrorist group has used social media to control its message. Several Twitter accounts linked to al-Shabab have popped up in the past two years and been suspended for violating Twitter's use policy.

In an essay published last November in the Yale Review of International Studies, graduate researcher Lindsay Pearlman said technology has "changed the fabric of the Islamic world, a community torn between rejecting innovation and embracing modernity."

Her essay, titled "Tweeting to Win: Al-Shabaab's Strategic Use of Microblogging," says that platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become tools for radical groups to "reach a greater audience, challenge opponents and spread their ideologies."

"Twitter ... offers unique advantages to users," wrote Pearlman, a graduate student and researcher with the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. "Its short but sweet sound bite format and easy transmission abilities can captivate an audience accustomed to constant and condensed media bombardment."

Pearlman examined the Twitter account of al-Shabab, which first appeared on Dec. 7, 2011, under the name HSM Press Office. She said the terrorist group has used Twitter in three areas: "Intramovement coordination, information creation and verification, and ideological engagement."

Counterterrorism groups have also used social media as a way to research terrorist groups, using Twitter accounts and other social media to gauge the groups' reach and track their supporters.

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland recently studied al-Shabab's Twitter feed and discovered that its reach has grown considerably in the last year, in part because of social media.

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