Seafarers turn to social media for piracy updates

Caption: Crew turning to social media to keep a lookout for piracy threats

Within the first 15 days of 2018, the IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre’s Live Piracy Map showed nine piracy incidents, from the Caribbean to the Gulf of Guinea and across the waters of southeast Asia. While this figure is a conclusive evidence that piracy is alive and kicking, it may not be the whole story, with seafarers increasingly turning away from more established reporting organisations.

Most people will report a crime in the hope that someone else will respond to prevent the same thing from happening again. Reporting a crime drops off dramatically if victims think their concerns will be regarded as unimportant or ignored.

For seafarers, the frustration of nobody responding to a reported incident is pushing victims to use social media to spread the message, so others can avoid the same peril.

This at least gives the sufferer of a crime the moral satisfaction of having helped their community in some small way, to avoid a similar fate, as quickly as they can.

This is a challenge for the authorities, because social media is beyond their control and they believe it can result in dangerously unsolicited messages going viral with unintended consequences.

One of the great triumphs in the fight against piracy in the northwest Indian Ocean was the way in which the UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) organisation and the Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) efficiently processed reports from seafarers and redistributed information relevant to mariners.

The naval coalitions would task warships to respond to calls for help and tell other mariners to steer clear of the area. This proactive collaboration between merchant mariners and the naval coalitions resulted in the capture of pirates,who said the thing that scared them most was being caught by a warship.

Sadly, this success has not been replicated in the Gulf of Guinea. The Maritime Trade Information Sharing Centre-Gulf of Guinea (MTISC-GoG), based in Ghana, having been established by the shipping industry in 2014, gained credibility with seafarers but was politically unsustainable as Ghanaians reportedly refused to acknowledge it and other nations were unable to contribute to the running costs. MTISC-GoG was closed in the middle of 2016 and was replaced by a French and British naval reporting centre based in Brest, France, called the Marine Domain Awareness for Trade-Gulf of Guinea (MDAT-GoG).

Opinion is divided about MDAT’s effectiveness. There is no website to visit and while ‘advisories’ are distributed soon after incidents, they are not fulfilling expectations and, according to some commentators, including some flag states and NGOs, they are woefully inadequate.

Some criticise MDAT, saying that seafarers are providing detailed reports of piracy incidents but get nothing useful back, which is deeply frustrating and undermines the premise of MDAT supporting the community of vulnerable merchant ships transiting the Gulf of Guinea.

Increasingly, seafarers in the region are turning to social media and have set up networks using Telegram, a not-forprofit, cloud-based, instant encrypted messaging service, to exchange details of piracy incidents. These ‘chat nets’ are growing in popularity across the region and are becoming the go-to source for piracy updates.

In the Caribbean, there is no formal reporting centre and so the yachting community has used established social media sites to keep each other informed of crimes against yachts across the area.

Additionally, there are several reports of an interesting initiative to establish a centrally managed social media platform in the South China Sea. Made up of dissatisfied seafarers, they look to warn each other of illegal and dangerous activities in the South China Sea, but it has yet to be given the go-ahead.

The fundamental purpose of any reporting centre is to process and share information with the community of which it is a part and this core function must come above any other agenda. Social media is here to stay and cannot be ignored, but it must be managed proactively or the established reporting centres will become hollow and meaningless.

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