MARAWI, Philippines: The irresponsible use of social media can unwittingly put soldiers’ lives at risk, warned the Philippine military involved in a fierce battle with militants in the besieged city of Marawi.
Live streaming and posts to social networks from civilians and the media while the armed forces are carrying out their operations in the city can pose operational risks to the soldiers involved, said military spokesman Lt Colonel Jo-ar Herrera.
He added that the extremists holding sections of Marawi were known to be monitoring social media to try and gain an advantage on the frontline.
“It affects the locations, it affects the strategy of our soldiers and also can provide an opening for the enemy to locate or understand their situation,” he said.
Teams of journalists have been closely monitoring the conflict from the provincial capital headquarters in Marawi. Naturally, social media has been a critical tool for disseminating developments, with a caveat.
“You know ISIS (Islamic State) is monitoring and is active in this arena. And they might take advantage of that. Because they know the place, they know exactly where the military is,” said freelance reporter Ferdinandh Cabrera.
“There’s always a sense of responsibility. But of course we still post those pictures as part of our job. We came here to tell the story.”
The government and army have been trying to combat an online stream of propaganda they say is aimed at gaining more community support, both locally and internationally.
In the early days of the siege, social media was flooded with images of black flags being waved on the streets of Marawi and subsequently of the army’s response. Content can quickly become viral and can easily shift public sentiments, Herrera said.
Locals – many of them evacuated from Marawi – still rely heavily on social media to stay in touch with friends and relatives, and keep up to date with news updates.
It can useful but also confusing, according to Hakim Ali, a 20-year-old student. “I check with my friends if they are still alive through group chats via Facebook and I look to see if they’re okay,” he said.
“My friends sometimes share pictures of properties that have been damaged and people who were killed. But I don’t really believe those photos because they could just be edited
“You don’t just believe whatever you see.”
A request was made earlier this month by the military for Facebook to shut down 63 accounts being used by the terrorist groups and their supporters to “spread lies and misinformation”.
“Basically they are deploying social media warfare to be able to get support, to be able to get more sympathisers and of course to be able to get more funding from foreign terrorist organisations,” Herrera said.
Islamic State is known for its widespread use of the Internet to spread its messages and philosophies and show evidence of its activity throughout the world. Its online propaganda magazine Dabiq has extensively featured the Marawi conflict in recent weeks.
The fight for the city has now lasted nearly one month with no signs of an imminent clear breakthrough. The militants, supposedly led by the Maute group and bolstered by fighters from around the region are still thought to be holding 10 per cent of Marawi.
The death toll currently stands at 329, including 225 militants, 59 soldiers and 26 civilians.