Like the rest of Australia, we at the Lowy Institute are watching the unfolding siege in Martin Place, just a couple of blocks away from our building.
The Australian media is covering this story thoroughly — the ABC has turned off its geographical blocking for its News24 station, so get your coverage there, if you wish — and of course Twitter is awash with commentary and speculation.
But I agree with my colleague Rory Medcalf that much of the reporting is merely oxygen for those perpetrating the attack, and although The Interpreter will cover this siege from the Lowy Institute's vantage point in coming days, we have to be conscious also of the unintended consequences of our coverage. Consider the effect that social media had on the 2008 Mumbai siege:
Those who are still skeptical about the value of Twitter for real-time situational awareness during a crisis ought to ask why terrorists likely think otherwise. In 2008, terrorists carried out multiple attacks on Mumbai in what many refer to as the worst terrorist incident in Indian history. This study, summarized below, explains how the terrorists in question could have used social media for coor-dination and decision-making purposes...
...According to the study, “an analysis of satellite phone conversations between terrorist commandos in Mumbai and remote handlers in Pakistan shows that the remote handlers in Pakistan were monitoring the situation in Mumbai through live media, and delivered specific and situational attack commands through satellite phones to field terrorists in Mumbai.” These conversations provide “evidence that the Mumbai terrorist groups understood the value of up-to-date situation information during the terrorist operation. […] They under-stood that the loss of information superiority can compromise their operational goal.”
But of course, social media can also help the response to a terrorist siege:
Some of the first communications out of Mumbai, came via sources like Twitter...This information was shared in real time, even as the terrorists were seeking passports to confirm a hostage’s nationality. Any American in Mumbai with a Blackberry, I-Phone or even cell phone who had downloaded Twitter could have been made aware of this potentially life-saving information.