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How we got it wrong: coverage of the Oslo and Utoya attacks

July 24, 2011

Last night, as I was following the Oslo and Utoya coverage on Twitter, I tried to make sense of why it was happening in Norway. Almost every news site, blog, and expert said it was al Qaeda. If, like me, you turn to the media when you’re looking for breaking news, it would have been hard to reach any other conclusion. The tone of a lot of the coverage left little room for doubt- at least, this was true in the pieces that I read. And few attempts were made to qualify the claims that were circulating. What I found on Twitter largely reinforced this.

And so I fell prey to the spell: Was it authorized by al Qaeda leaders or was it al Qaeda-inspired,  like the Fort Hood shooting was? What, exactly, was the motivation? Were the terrorists “homegrown”? Well, it turns out that the terrorist was homegrown all right: a lone white male, Norwegian, right-wing Christian.

Today, I’m wondering how I jumped so easily to the al Qaeda conclusion. A couple of thoughts:

1) I rely heavily on the media for accurate information and I read from many different credible sources to make sure that the facts of a story are consistent. In this case, they were. The problem was that speculation was mixed in with fact without any effort to distinguish between them.  The claims, especially by the media, about al Qaeda were rarely qualified, and they should have been. To provide a contrast, I remember early coverage of the Madrid train bombings: at the time, there was also good reason to believe that it was al Qaeda, but it could also have been ETA. The press was more cautious with its conclusions and the story developed in a much more restrained way. This was not the case with the Oslo and Utoya attacks.

2) I rely on a host of experts to vet and filter information for me. I trust that the information that they share or post or write about has passed a host of independent “sniff tests”. In this case, the problem was that everyone, myself included, seemed to suffer from the effects of GroupThink, Stereotyping, Recency Bias, and Confirmation Bias.

Groupthink: The fact that there was widespread agreement in the media and amongst experts that it was al Qaeda raised the bar for public disagreement.

Stereotyping: in the past decade, successful large-scale attacks (especially bombings) that have targeted the West or Westerners that were not al Qaeda-approved or -inspired have been rare. Given these past experiences, the mental shortcut that most of us take when we hear of a terrorist attack against a Western target is, not surprisingly, to make al Qaeda the default perpetrator.

Recency Bias: This is when recent events play a much stronger in influencing our judgment. We regularly hear about al Qaeda-inspired attacks regularly, as well as those of linked Islamic extremists. For example, another suicide bomb attack in Aden, Yemen on July 24. This NY Times story suggests that a whole spate of bombings were perpetrated by a group linked to al Qaeda (but leaves open the possibility that the government might be responsible). These sorts of stories have bombarded media outlets for a decade.

Confirmation Bias: In this case, we sought information to confirm our existing beliefs. For example, when I looked for reasons as to why Norway was targeted, I found a few that seemed to make sense. Evidence that didn’t fit- for example, why it happened on the Friday of a holiday weekend with no one in the office- was discarded.

It was only when I found out that he was white that I realized that it was possible that everyone, including the experts that I trusted, had gotten it wrong.

I bring up all of this because I think there is a lot to be learned from the way in which this story first broke and developed. And it is important to reflect on how most of us (but not all) got it so wrong.

Twitter, I believe, played an especially important role. Of late, Twitter has turned into an important source of information for journalists and experts. But as a Twitter newbie, I’ve also noticed that journalists and experts don’t typically qualify their information when it’s sketchy or unconfirmed. Ironically, Will Mc Cants was actually one of the ones who did qualify his comments. (“Could just be forum user blowing hot air. forum members also confused abt who this guy is”). Because I’m used to getting accurate information these sources under normal circumstances, I assumed that what was being tweeted last night was of similar quality. Poor assumption.

The point is that while events are still in progress, we need to clearly distinguish between fact and speculation. Twitter fuels both. When a story is still breaking, those of us who tweet need to remember that the quality of information is much more variable and to retweet accordingly. Rushing to judgment can lead to mistakes that are not only embarrassing (like the cover of the Sun), but that alter the course of history (See Controversial Issues).  Brett Blake (papacinek) makes a similar argument.  And as Isobel J pointed out in responding to my earlier post,

One of the results of the inevitable assumption that it was al Qaeda was mosques being targeted for hate crimes in retribution. Although individuals could have assumed al Qaeda to be responsible, the number of news reports and journalistic opinions encouraging that view probably did not help…

While I haven’t seen evidence of such a backlash as yet in this case, this is certainly possible and perhaps likely.  Clearly, the Norwegian government recognized the possibility or retaliatory attacks.  PM Jens Stoltenberg and the Norwegian police were very cautious in their tone. There is fallout from speculating, especially when it turns out to be wrong. Speculators are not the ones who suffer the consequences of opinions formed in haste. In The Huffington Post, Hina P. Ansari notes that:

Labour Party member and Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store who visited the youth camp just the day before, expressed that mistakes need not be repeated in this tragic instance: “We’ve seen in Europe in recent years that politicians have been jumping to conclusions about suspects before investigations have been conducted, and we will not commit that error.”

The development of this story is a lesson for all of us. And Norway, as usual, has something to teach the rest of us.

Update: A commentary from Martijn de Koning on violence and ideology, arguing that Breivik, may have been a lone gunman, but that his ideas are grounded in a political movement. (I made a similar argument about Jared Loughner after the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords in January 2011.) A discussion of Breivik’s manifesto by Blake Hounshell on Foreign Policy reveals him to be a right-wing extremist, but a relatively rational one.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. papicek permalink
    July 24, 2011 3:41 am

    Well, you put it better than I did. The gatekeepers of information dropped the ball. Not that a possible AQ connection couldn’t be mentioned, but the gatekeepers needed to do so only with the utmost care. “Al Qaeda” is a term sometimes used to attempt to further an agenda. I saw Oslo used that way today in a mainstream news outlet.

  2. Casey permalink
    July 24, 2011 3:41 pm

    I remember Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries in the Arab world that immediately expressed their outrage that Arab people were involved in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. And although a week later, the FBI announced that the bombing was the work of “home-grown” terrorists, congress acted quickly to pass bills purporting to clamp down on foreign terrorism. Jumping to wrong conclusions has a political purpose. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 was the forerunner of later laws restricting Arab Americans. Let’s see what hapoens in Norway…

  3. July 25, 2011 10:09 am

    Casey: papicek makes the same point in the first part of his commentary http://bit.ly/nYvmFm. And yes, it’s clear that agendas can be hijacked and grievances fuelled. Even when the link is pretty weak as with a purported al Qaeda attack in Norway and US Defence spending cuts.

    • papicek permalink
      July 30, 2011 4:46 pm

      Love to be able to approve your comment on my blog for display, but you commented to my “About Me” page, and comments are seemingly not allowed.

      A teaching moment here 🙂

      • July 31, 2011 10:47 am

        Did I mess that up? I have three links to you here: Brett Blake is linked to your About Me page, but the other two link to your post (“makes a similar argument” and above “in the first part of his commentary”).

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