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#TexasAttack: how the Garland shooters gamed Twitter

We have entered an age where would-be terrorists tweet out hashtags for their own PR

Let's get a few things straight. Hosting a competition for grown men to see who could draw the best Prophet Muhammad is stupid and childish. It's a desperately boring form of protest against a perceived obstruction to freedom of speech, one clearly designed to generate controversy and division, hence why the American Freedom Defense Initiative hired armed police officers at a cost of $10,000 to be onsite during the contest.

Armed with assault rifles, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi descended on the arena in Garland, Texas and opened fire on a security guard, injuring him. Another officer returned fire, killing the two men and valiantly defending the amateur cartoon contest taking place inside, no doubt inspired by the tragic shooting at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The terror group Islamic State has reportedly claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack, although the group's involvement has not been confirmed.

As news filters through about the shooting, reports come in that one of the gunmen had used the pro-ISIL Twitter account @atawaakul to announce the impending ambush, along with the hashtag #texasattack. Simpson is now believed to be behind the now-suspended account.

As anyone reading will no doubt know, hashtags are metadata tags used to drive engagement on Twitter or Instagram, making it easier for people to search for specific topics online. Normally, they're reserved for games like #FiveWordsToRuinAMovie, activism such as #BringBackOurGirls or to look at celeb dresses such using #MetGala.

But here was a gunman creating a hashtag for a shooting he hadn't even carried out yet, revealing that the motives for the attack were both murder and media, driven by #traffic and #engagement. There's something resolutely dystopian about a shooter thinking as much like a killer as the head of content at a small marketing company.

Some media outlets opted to use #garlandshooting as the hashtag for their coverage, but many just went with the pre-ordained #texasattack, using the hashtag already determined by the alleged gunman and offering exactly the type of coverage he wanted.

What happened in Garland on Sunday feels distinctly avoidable. Each factor of the situation represents a pointless nadir, a microcosm of an ephemeral war between muddied belief systems. That's nothing new – humanity has been embroiled in this mess since the beginning of time. But it is the first time that an American gunman had launched his own hashtag to anticipate a shooting. Maybe the next time a brand-aware terrorist embarks on a deadly mission, he'll pay to have his tweets promoted.