Police in Brussels, Belgium have locked down the city for a third straight day as they search for Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month. Belgian authorities have asked Brussels residents not to tweet about police action, in case the suspects they seek are monitoring social media. And citizens have obliged — with enough cat pictures.
Some Bruxellois have been spamming the #BrusselsLockdown hashtag with lolcat pictures and memes, attempting to prevent any observers from gaining information about the police action. Did it work? Well, it did, but the way most social-media stories work: Only once the news media got involved. At first, there weren’t enough cats to bury the latest information about police raids around the city, but the trick started to work once international media picked up the story of the lolcat brigade. Now #BrusselsLockdown seems to feature more stories about cat pics than actual cat pics (and more cat pics than news about the manhunt.)
Even some Belgian news outlets complied with the police request. Le Soir’s Christophe Berti defended his paper’s decision to observe radio silence, saying, “We do not play with lives. It is not censorship nor a way to prevent us from doing our jobs.”
But, as some journalists are asking, are we dealing with lolcats ou censure? By quickly jumping to the aid of the police, are Brusselians fighting terrorism or blocking the flow of crucial information to a public that has the right to know? Pourquoi pas les deux?
Daniel Schneidermann, writing on Arrêt Sur Images, took the most extreme anti-lolcat stance, asking whether a compulsory “chatonnisation” — catifying — of the media during emergencies was coming next.
“Obviously, to avoid publishing geographic information during a police operation does not undermine press freedom,” he wrote, “But will we then refrain from criticizing police action if — it can happen — it’s poorly conducted? Will we refrain from speaking to the neighbors of the searched apartments? The lawyers of the arrested?”
It’s an odd effect of social media — the same techniques that allow for the rapid distribution of information also allow for the rapid distribution of noise. But what should be most disquieting to free-speech advocates isn’t censorship — the lolcats only have the effect of making a search more difficult, not impossible — but the eager and performative attempts of citizens to not just comply with, but extend, a police gag order.
As of Monday morning, 21 people had been detained after police raids in Brussels and Liege. There’s still no information about those arrested, but police did say that Abdeslam, the primary suspect, was not among them. Around 1,000 officers are reportedly involved in the manhunt.
Police also made sure to thank everyone for the lolcats: