Why kitten photos overwhelmed the #BrusselsLockdown on Twitter

A Brussels lockdown produced a surge of cat photo tweets to offer a moment of levity in an extremely tense situation. But the cat tweets may have assisted police, too.

Yves Herman/Reuters
Belgian soldiers and police patrol in central Brussels as police searched the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, Belgium, November 23, 2015.

As the sun set on a second day of lockdown in Brussels, Belgian authorities asked local Twitter users to silence their accounts to keep police and military safe in their search for fugitive Paris terror suspect, Salah Abdeslam. The reaction on social media was swift and unexpected: Tweets of real-time updates and eyewitness accounts from Brussels were replaced with kittens.

"After Belgian police asked residents not to share details of the #BrusselsLockdown via social media, civilians took over the hashtag and flooded it with pictures of their feline friends," Twitter said, in summing up the way some of its community responded on its "Moments" page.

The majority of tweets appeared to not just offer a moment of levity in an extremely tense situation, the cats served a purpose, too, making it more difficult for suspected terrorists trying to gather details of the counter-terrorism operations by flooding the #BrusselsLockdown feed with memes.

Even after the raids ended, photos of cats persisted.

In a press conference after midnight local time, authorities said they had made 16 arrests in the operation in Brussels, Reuters reports. Mr. Abdeslam, a suspect in the Paris attacks, was not among them, however, according to Belgian prosecutors, even after 19 raids.

Belgian authorities are still warning residents of possible attacks similar to those in Paris, which killed 130, fearful that Abdelsam has returned home to Brussels to perpetrate more violence.

Prime Minister Charles Michel said at the news conference that the city will remain on Belgium's fourth and highest level of security threat, meaning the threat of an attack was "serious and imminent".

"What we fear is an attack similar to the one in Paris, with several individuals who could possibly launch several attacks at the same time in multiple locations," he told a news conference.

On Monday, public transportation, schools, and shops will remain closed. NATO, which had raised its alert level since the Paris attacks of Nov. 13, said its headquarters in Brussels were open, but some staff had been asked to work from home and external visits had been cancelled. 

Not since the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013 has a major city been put on lockdown as a manhunt was underway, and a terror investigation captivated an online, international audience. In the case of Boston, Reddit users took to their accounts to leverage what amounted to a witch hunt, the threads of which were picked up by major media outlets. As Salon reports:

Innocent spectators were targeted by a scary cadre of online vigilantes and two blameless men saw their images plastered over the [New York] Post’s front page with the news that the feds were looking for them (not true). When the FBI released photos of the actual suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers, an unchastened Reddit promptly seized on the resemblance between one suspect (Dzhokhar) and a Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, who had been missing for several weeks. Someone on Twitter claimed he’d heard Tripathi’s name on the Boston police scanner, and the story, apparently verified, spread, causing Tripathi’s family great pain. (The student’s body was later found in the Providence River.) 

Two and a half years later, and with a new city shellshocked and lacking closure on a terror investigation, citizens of the EU appear to have evolved the idea of what it means to assist when so much is still unknown. Meanwhile, as the search goes on, Belgian authorities have expressed gratitude to the people of Brussels, Internet users, and those cats:

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.