Tweeting Westgate

[The following is an “invited post” by Dr. Sarah Hillewaert. Sarah is an Assistant Professor of Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Her works focuses on shifting notions of personhood and the changing linguistic and material practices of youth in (coastal) Kenya.]

On Saturday September 21st 2013, an upscale shopping center in Nairobi, Kenya became the target of a ruthless siege. A group of gunmen, their estimated number ranging between 6 and 15, entered the Westgate Mall and opened fire on bewildered shoppers, indiscriminately killing men, women and children. A few hours into the siege, Al-Shabaab – a Somali Islamist group with ties to Al-Qaeda – claimed the Westgate attack, not through an auspicious video delivered to a major television network, nor through an official statement of Al-Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Godane, but via a Tweet on the organization’s Twitter account. The militants’ use of social media, and of Twitter in particular, would be featured centrally in the international media’s coverage of the attack. This preoccupation with Al-Shabaab’s use of new media technology, and the concern it was able to create, revealed much more about our apprehension toward the unexpected linkages and similarities social media create than it did about Al-Shabaab’s international reach. The media coverage of the Westgate siege illustrated how we laud the “power” of social media when it generates desirable similarities; unanticipated linkages, however, need to be explained away. A focus on “outliers” or “extremists,” or the identification of practices that answer to our social imaginary then restores the familiar distance between of “us” and “them.” 

During the four-day siege, twitter feeds from both Al-Shabaab militants and Kenyan security forces provided the public with updates on their positions and strategies. The Al-Shabaab account, purportedly monitored by allies communicating with the Westgate attackers, provided often disturbing minute-to-minute updates of the events in the mall, ranging from reports on the shooting of hostages to warnings at the address of the Kenyan government. Although Twitter suspended the purported Al-Shabaab accounts numerous times, newly created ghost accounts had hundreds of followers soon after the flow of Tweets recommenced. 

Al-Shabaab’s use of this particular social media outlet fascinated international media. Interest in feed content aside, the use of the platform itself and the linguistic practices of tweeters seemed to suggest that American youth were involved in the attack and thus hinted at the international support network behind the Westgate assailants. The reports on the siege, the hate speech, and threats of future retaliations were not stated in Arabic, Somali, or ‘deficient’ English. Rather, the majority of the postings were formulated in faultless, often even colloquial, American (and sometimes British) English. Statements such as “y’all shall remain doomed forever,” “karma is a bitch” or “we ain’t negotiating till you pull your troops out” served as evidence to Al-Shabaab’s earlier proclamations regarding the participation of young men from the United States, the UK and Canada (among others) in the Westgate siege. Although the authenticity of the account as well as the accuracy of the statements were never confirmed (and were, in fact, highly questionable) North American media eagerly picked up on the Tweets and shifted the focus of its reporting. The unfolding at the Westgate mall itself, the fate of the hostages, the aftermath of the siege and the implications for Kenyan citizens thereby disappeared to the background. Only one question appeared to now occupy news anchors: What does Westgate mean for America? 

Social media brought far removed terror home to the United States. The ease with which alleged Al-Shabaab militants used new media technology as well as the language they used transformed the morally unknowable foreign “others” into recognizable social types, making these “terrorists” more familiar than the American public might otherwise prefer. North American media’s emphasis on Al-Shabaab’s use of Twitter and the value they attached to the unverified messages (something news stations like CNN would be criticized for in the days to come) was striking. After all, the use of social media by groups like Al-Shabaab is nothing new. On the contrary, militant groups like Al-Shabaab are known to have used channels like YouTube, Soundcloud, and Twitter to recruit youth for quite some time. Many North Americans, however, tend to view social media as representing their own networks and cultural practices, as something almost inherently “western.”

This does not mean that others can’t appropriate such practices; the Arab Spring clearly illustrated the social power behind the use of new media technology. But in that context social media facilitated the “liberation” of people in a much-needed “revolution.” Westgate exposed something entirely different: it created an estranged confrontation with “terrorists” who speak and act “like us,” thereby producing, as it were, a cognitive dissonance. 

The media’s response to the Twitter feeds is confrontationally telling about the West’s unwillingness to accept the new linkages that social media have created and thus the refusal to rethink the networks to which we “belong.” In an attempt to “tidy up” the distorted image of “us” and “them,” North American media set out to find elements that confirmed the familiar social imaginary: in the Twitter feeds, in the Somali community in Minnesota, in the new myth of Britain’s white widow, and in the oft-repeated sensational stories about the attackers’ careful separation of Muslims and non-Muslims. What Westgate, and its North-American coverage, painfully illustrated is the discursive, mediatized erasure of the unwanted connections and similarities between the feared “other” and “us” that were manifested through social media practices. New media technologies are linking us in a variety of ways, yet Westgate showed that we are only comfortable with a few of these. We look at social media practices when they answer to our social imaginary, but prefer to ignore them when they don’t, thereby erasing the unexpected similarities new media have created. 

As I was writing this article, I was informed about another event that disturbed the peace in Kenya. Via Facebook and Twitter I heard about the targeted shooting of four Muslims, including one Imam, in the coastal city of Mombasa. This time, none of the national or international media channels picked up on the Twitter feeds, despite the graphic images posted. However, the next day the images of Muslim youth burning churches in the riots that unfolded as a response to the shooting were featured centrally in the Friday news. The more familiar picture of the “radical” Muslim youth and a repeated emphasis on the East African coast being a “center for Islam radicalism” reestablished a comfortable distance between “us” and “them,” removing “home grown terrorism” from the picture. 

As a researcher working with Muslim youth in Kenya, there is much more I could say about Westgate, its aftermath and the international media’s coverage of the events of the past three weeks. For now, let me end by asking whether social media are, in fact, as powerful as we often assume them to be.  With a growing anthropological interest in circulatory forms and social media’s new “imagined communities,” maybe we ought to look for the similarities that are erased and the boundaries, borders, and dissimilarities that are re-created in order to establish, or often maintain, those linkages that reflect a desirable social imaginary. 

One thought on “Tweeting Westgate

  1. Reblogged this on African Studies library and commented:
    An interesting review of the role of (and reactions to the use of) social media during the recent violence at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Reblogged from Savage Minds Backup and guest Dr. Sarah Hillewaert.

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