Westgate Attack: Al-Shabaab and the Comedy of Errors

A journalist rescues a woman injured in a shootout between armed men and the police at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. [Thomas Mukoya/REUTERS]

A journalist rescues a woman injured in a shootout between armed men and the police at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. [Thomas Mukoya/REUTERS]

The Westgate attack has exposed the soft underbelly of reporting in the digital era, where anyone with cell phone and social media account can relay information instantaneously and the pressure to break news at the expense of getting the story right has become the cost of doing business. Consider the recent tragedy at Westgate and how social media gave traditional media a run for its money.

Saturday, September 21

By mid-afternoon, my Twitter feed was filled with horrible news from Nairobi, Kenya. More than 10 al-Shabaab militants allegedly stormed the high-end Westgate shopping mall in the Westlands neighborhood where hundreds of shoppers milled around doing what people do at shopping malls – shopping, sipping coffee, and socializing with loved ones. There was even a cooking competition taking place at on the mall that day.

Though information was scarce, local news outlets did not provide much needed information or analyses on what was happening and why.

But within an hour the void was filled when The Associated Press quickly ran a story from Nairobi quoting a source who said that the attackers sifted through the shoppers at Westgate asking Muslims identify themselves and leave before reigning terror on the remaining everyone else.

What followed in the next few hours and days, with the over-reliance on Twitter, can best be described as the “Battle of the Tweets.”

Five hours into the attack, Al Jazeera English quoted a fake al-Shabaab Twitter account that stated “it’s going to be a long ordeal in Westgate.” Reuters, in turn, said that the “Somali militant group al-Shabaab had threatened to strike the Westgate mall,” adding that the group had no comment on the attack.

A Kenyan news anchor tweeted about the death of a radio presenter with a local FM station, who was hosting a cooking competition for children, then immediately deleted the tweet.

The Daily Nation, a widely circulated newspaper in Kenya, used a bloody photo of a visibly horrified, shrieking woman at the Westgate attack on the front page of its Sunday edition. The photo made it first to the timelines of Twitter before it hit the newsstands in Nairobi, thanks to eager tweeps.

The photo drew a sharp reaction overnight, as it was seen by many as unethical and the media group apologized the next day. It further turned out that the photo had been manipulated for maximum effect: it was flipped to “make it work better for the layout,” according to Poynter, a nonprofit journalism education and training center based in Florida.

Sunday, September 22

As the gunmen continued their siege of the mall for the second day, the Westgate became a trending topic on Twitter and dominated the web pages of international media news sites. By then, al-Shabaab had already claimed that it carried out the attack on… wait for it… Twitter.

“For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land,” al-Shabaab posted on its account. But it wasn’t until Twitter decided to suspend al-Shabaab’s account for a record five times in just three days that the real Shakespearean comedy of errors began.

Cable TV networks fell one after another for fake al-Shabaab twitter handles breathlessly regurgitating al-Shabaab braggadocio.

CNN reported that “three of the alleged attackers are from the United States, two are from Somalia and there is one each from Canada, Finland, Kenya and the United Kingdom,” citing the fake Twitter account @HSM_Press2, identical to the real al-Shabaab’s account, @HSM_Press suspended days earlier.

Even al-Shabaab was not amused and said in an email to journalists on its mailing lists: “Until recently our account was @HSMPROffice and that has been suspended and we do not currently have any other active account.”

CNN had committed another mistake on another international story, adding to the Boston Marathon bombing fiasco in April 2013 when the station reported that a suspect had been arrested, and its rush to declare that the Supreme Court had overturned President Obama’s health care law in 2012.

In the words of independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall, CNN got more “eyeballs to sample” their gaffe from readers across continents who were all following the Westgate attack.

However, CNN’s Twitter gaffe, this time on Westgate, did not stop the American government or media from investigating if any Americans were involved in the attack on the Nairobi mall.

The Wall Street Journal even went further and declared that “The affiliate that attacked the shopping mall in Kenya includes young Muslim recruits from Minnesota,” when the number, identity and nationalities of the assailants was not even clear to begin with.

NBC Nightly News quoted sources who said that the FBI was “investigating whether Americans were involved in Nairobi mall attack, based on tweets from terrorists.”

Mall of America, the largest US shopping center and entertainment complex near the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport, obviously acting on the “Minnesota connection” to the Westgate attack, implemented extra security checks.

Monday, September 23

The floodgates of speculation and innuendo opened.

Cable news crews from around the U.S. descended on Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood to interview Somalis and to find out if they knew some of the attackers. Minneapolis, the largest city in the US State of Minnesota, is home to a large Somali community, at least 20 of whom allegedly left for Somalia to join al-Shabaab since 2007.

“Why are you even here? There is no reason. Just negative bullshit!” one teenager was quoted telling off a local cable news crew. Some, like 17-year-old Khadra, were more concerned about what it meant to be black, Muslim and wearing the hijab.

“You have to understand our fear,” she told Buzzfeed. “When things like this happen, people are immediately going to point at a girl with a headscarf and a black guy. They’re just going to literally attack you. We’re already, like, scared, and now we’re like, what is going to happen to us, you know?”

Others, like Minneapolis-based writer Ramla Bile, took to social media to weigh in on how the “reckless” reporting by CNN “could adversely harm” the Somali community.

“In our intensely global and interconnected world, there’s…a need for responsible, critical reporting,” Ramla said.

Questions galore

Many questions still remain unanswered in the Westgate tragedy.

The exact number of the attackers, their identities and nationalities, the number killed, and if some survived the last stages of the hostage rescue operation – all these questions  are still cloaked in mystery.

It is not known how many hostages were inside Westgate when the top three floors caved in (or why indeed the floors caved in and who was responsible). There is even a Google Document file with 85 unanswered questions circulating online.

“Why the conflicting information from the different government sources. Even if to confuse and spread misinformation, why the different and conflicting information?” reads question No. 26 on the list.

The pressure to break stories has pushed many news organizations to commit huge journalistic mistakes, and rather than spread the truth, become instruments for spreading fictitious tales (unwittingly or not); tales that may have grave mistakes in both the short and the long term. And while chasing tales, media houses have collectively failed to explore basic questions about the tragedy that unfolded at Westgate.

Perhaps the media fraternity needs to rethink how it delivers news and analyses to consumers.

In the past, good old-fashioned, shoe-leather journalism has served journalists well in getting the right answer to many a vexing question. Yet, a reporter’s ability to practice responsible reporting and due-diligence with the speed needed in our digital age is critical to fulfilling the civic duty that journalists maintain in our world.

Twitter: @mukhtaryare

Email: mukhtaryare@gmail.com

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