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Is social media to blame for terrorism?

By Zak Thomas

Tuesday 16 December 2014 Student journalists

NUS Journalist Zak Thomas explores the extent to which we will go to prevent more attacks, even if it sacrifices our freedom to privacy.

The thought that you could be referred to the security services for typing: “I could murder a sandwich" is frightening, and yet Facebook have been criticised for not having adequate snooping systems in place to monitor terrorism.

The latest criticism came from the UK Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) who said Facebook could have prevented Lee Rigby’s brutal murder in May 2013, as one of the killers Michael Adebowale had used the service to send messages about his murderous intent.

Whilst many suspect that Facebook already tracks private messages, there’s little evidence in the public domain that they do, and nor should they have the right to. Private messages are private, and if Facebook were to deploy algorithms to detect words like “kill,” “shoot” and “stab” to all of it’s 1.3 billion users, not only would it have the impossible task of monitoring trillions of messages, but it would also partake in an invasion of privacy that’s akin to the Post Office opening every letter that passes through its network.

Adebowale was not under investigation at the time he committed this brutal act, and if he had truly wanted to go undetected, encrypted messaging or offline communication could have prevented the security services from gaining any knowledge of the attack.

The fact that evidence was on Facebook’s private communication networks does not mean Facebook are to blame, they offer a private service and therefore all of its users should be able to expect privacy.

Considering the intrusive nature of social networking, perhaps it’s rather naïve to assume that any aspect is private but, nonetheless, if it’s presented as such, then surely that promise should be kept. The last thing we need is an algorithm that assumes everyone is guilty until proven innocent.

The only people to blame for this horrific attack are the men that murdered Lee Rigby. The fact that they went undetected is a stain on our security services, but let this not be an excuse to introduce ever more draconian counter-terrorism measures that breach privacy and accelerate our demise toward a Big Brother state.


Originally from Cambridge, I moved to London in September 2013 to study a journalism BA at Goldsmiths, University of London. At 24, I have come to university later in life, after spending several years working as a musician and travelling the world.

It was through music that I found an appetite for journalism, contributing regularly to online music magazine ‘Slate The Disco’ with reviews and interviews. This ultimately inspired me to apply to Goldsmiths and so far I have been heavily involved in the student newspaper there, covering everything from student occupations to University Challenge.

Through the news agenda, we are reminded of the challenges, triumphs, obstacles and injustices that affect us every day. Therefore, as an NUS Journalist, I hope to provide an insight into how we engage with the world around us, from casual debate and student politics, to campaigns and student protests.

Whilst I may have my own views on how we should engage with the world around us, my main goal in writing about the student perspective will be to look at the news agenda from a variety of different angles and bring you a broad idea of how we see our role within society.