This briefing investigates the role of social media in disseminating public facing counter-terrorism strategic communication messages.

This briefing reports findings from an empirical study conducted as part of the wider STARS project, investigating the role of social media in disseminating public facing Counter-Terrorism strategic communications messages. The adoption of this focus reflects how there is a growing literature using social media data to track and trace the harms that arise in the aftermath of terror attacks. For example, in the form of hate crimes and escalated community tensions. There is less work, however, that has explored what happens outside of crisis situations and in terms of more positive preventative messaging, that is the principal focus of the STARS project.

To conduct a preliminary investigation of the latter issue, we used the Brandwatch tool to collect Twitter data for posts between May 19th 2021 and May 26th 2022 relating to five key counter-terrorism communication campaign hashtags:

  • #ACTEarly
  • #CommunitiesDefeatTerrorism
  • #ActionCountersTerrorism
  • #ProjectServator
  • #SeeItSayItSorted

The resulting data were analysed in two main ways: (1) temporally to examine increases and decreases in posting volumes over time and some of the causes and consequences associated with these patterns, especially relating to the resulting sentiments generated; and (2) in terms of who the principal authors are relating to each campaign, and the levels of reach and engagement they are achieving.

Several headline findings from this approach can be identified:

  • All of the top social media authors engaging with the five hashtag based campaigns were police and official government accounts. The over-riding pattern was of counter-terrorism officials talking to each other and promoting each others posts.
  • Sentiment analysis of the content of posts and responses to these suggest campaigns were triggering a lot of public fear and anxiety. A legitimate question to pose is whether the authorities should be in the business of promoting fear, albeit acknowledging that some public concern needs to be elicited if awareness is to be raised.
  • That said, there were shifts over time in the levels of public fear and anxiety, suggesting that it is amenable to being influenced by appropriately configured messaging.