Stop Feeding the Troll: The Case for an ISIS Propaganda Blackout
This past weekend, several media outlets ran a story about how ISIS is seeking a nuclear weapon:
—International Business Times
“Let me throw a hypothetical operation onto the table,” [Cantile] continues. “The Islamic State has billions of dollars in the bank, so they call on their wilāyah in Pakistan to purchase a nuclear device through weapons dealers with links to corrupt officials in the region.”
It admits that such a scenario is “far-fetched” but warns: “It’s the sum of all fears for Western intelligence agencies and it’s infinitely more possible today than it was just one year ago.”
This “hypothetical operation” was a “far-fetched” scenario—but the meme, naturally, soon spread to popular right-wing media:
Other propaganda claims from this issue of Dabiq would find their way into Western media—namely viral-ready threats to behead President Obama and auction off his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama, to the sex slave market.
Now, there’s no actual evidence that any of this is anything more than deranged ranting, yet here we are: Millions of casual news observers who scrolled through western media this weekend came away thinking ISIS is plotting to acquire a nuclear bomb, kill the president and prostitute his wife.
This isn’t the first time the media has engaged in what I call the “Nancy Grace Factor” when it comes to ISIS. The Nancy Grace Factor, named after the perpetually indignant cable news host, is when a media outlet ostensibly condemns some terrible—yet titillating—menace while simultaneously trading in its exploits. It permits the pundit to excoriate the subject matter while also feeding its scary details to the rubbernecking masses to drive ratings and traffic.
This mentality explains most of corporate media’s ISIS coverage and—as is readily apparent by the never-ending stream of snuff films coming from their Al Hayat Media Center—ISIS propagandists as well. The media’s account of the rise of ISIS has uniformly been defined by hyping its ambition, its scope and its sheer bad-assery, thus carrying water for ISIS’s core argument that it, and it alone, is the Islamic vanguard against Western colonial aggression.
Indeed, as much ink as has been spilled by corporate media pearl-clutching the “threat of the ISIS propaganda machine” and ISIS’s unstoppable “Twitter army,” what’s never mentioned is that by sheer reach, the vast majority of ISIS propaganda is, in fact, disseminated by corporate media themselves.
ISIS, like any good troll, requires predictable outrage from the trollee in order to justify its troll strategy. For example, the primary source for almost all of the ISIS propaganda videos, Rita Katz of SITE Intelligence Group, feverishly demands Twitter ban jihadi social media (though presumably not the ones created by the FBI or DoD) while routinely tweeting out ISIS propaganda in its rawest form. Does the average giddy jihadists care how their fear goes viral? Of course not. Just as Kim Kardashian parlayed our collective indignation over her sex tape into a $130 million empire, so ISIS uses our own media outrage machine against us—enhancing its brand with each condemnation.
But ISIS propaganda is newsworthy, you say. Yes. The fact of propaganda is, of course, newsworthy, but the actual images and videos are, in most contexts, nothing more than pornography. Even setting aside something as goofy as this weekend’s idle threats, actually newsworthy pieces of propaganda like the beheading videos are covered by Western press like a medieval public execution spectacle. Any murder is newsworthy; this doesn’t mean media need to show images of said murder on a loop to report the fact of this murder. That they do—with no apparent news value beyond conveying how savage ISIS is—belies their ostensibly journalistic motive.
Several outlets, like the New York Times and NPR, have been incrementally less terrible at this, skirting the Nancy Grace Factor and down playing the gruesome visuals. But this is likely more a product of medium rather than editorial discretion. Visual-heavy TV news and news tabloid outfits almost to a tee showed no such prudence, running the horrific images of Foley’s death nonstop:
But why? The irony is that in all ISIS “beheading videos”—except one—the actual beheading is never shown. Whoever edits these snuff films, from some reason, cuts away right before the actual act of violence and fades to the brutal aftermath, followed by a long-winded speech and Islamist chanting; in this sense, the editors at CNN and CBS showed about as much discretion as ISIS themselves.
Indeed, given that Fox News ran the Jordanian pilot torching video in its entirety, it’s possible the only thing preventing corporate media from actually showing the beheadings themselves is that no such footage is actually provided by our bloodthirsty yet squeamish terrorists. But the logic is the same. For the same reason that the threat of torture is legally indistinguishable from torture itself, the trauma of showing the images to the runup to the killing are as effective as the showing of the killing itself. As such, media’s constant use of pre-execution b-roll, the quivering testimony of the the victim, and the focus on the executioner’s ideology has just as much recruiting purchase for ISIS as simply reposting the video itself. The actual violence, as both Western media and ISIS alike understand, is incidental.
It’s an obvious moral hazard that’s been simmering under the surface since this whole ISIS phenomenon began—having been briefly touched upon by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Fox News’ Laura Ingraham last February. As Heather Digby Patron would note in Salon:
For months [Hayes] has been making the case that this lurid coverage is not only creating the conditions for war without any proper debate, it’s playing into the terrorists’ hands. When Fox’s Bill O’Reilly recently declared that we are in a “Holy War” with Islam, Hayes said on his program:
“That sort of rhetoric is, of course, exactly what ISIS wants. For if this is a Holy War, they aren’t some murderous cult or some fringe Sunni militia. No, if it’s a Holy War, then they are the representatives of Islam, which is why the president at today’s summit on countering violent extremism was so careful not to cast the fight on those terms.”
These terrorists produce this propaganda for recruitment purposes but produce them with slick production values for US and other Western media in order to try to make the US the common enemy of all Islam. Hayes is one of the only cable news hosts to explicitly challenge not only the Holy War meme, but the reaction of the media to every alleged threat.
But he is on the same page with one very unlikely Fox News personality. Here’s Laura Ingraham, of all people, talking about the shopping mall threat assessment:
“I don’t think we should jump every time the freaks with the Ace bandages around their faces put out videos.… I think we should have a mature debate about how to secure the Homeland without changing our way of life.”
So where does this leave us? The solution seem readily apparent: If the media really wanted to prevent the dissemination of ISIS propaganda, they could stop disseminating ISIS propaganda. It’s really that simple. Report the substance—“James Foley Has Died,” “ISIS Releases Another Propaganda Magazine”—but avoid the smutty details, the empty threats and, above all, the titillating visuals.
There will no doubt be three main objections to this proposal:
- But media can’t conspire to not cover something!
Wrong. They do this all the time, as a matter of course. The media, for example, have a widespread policy against publishing rape accusers’ names. This policy is a common-sense restriction media have informally imposed on themselves with the understanding that publicity not only traumatizes those who have been raped, but discourages future survivors from coming forward. It’s an admission that their industry can have harmful externalities in their narrow pursuit of a “story.” The name of the accuser typically has no news value and the reporting of the rape is not enhanced by the divulging of this information. On balance, therefore, avoiding this detail is seen as being in the greater public interest. The same is true for the weaponization of mass media by ISIS.
- But if someone wants to find ISIS propaganda they will.
Great, then let them. If one actively pursues damn near anything on the internet, you can find it. This doesn’t mean major media outlets need to tee it up to the otherwise distracted and disinterested masses and radically amplify ISIS’s core propaganda memes.
- Even if the media ignores ISIS’ social media propaganda, this won’t make it go away
Of course it won’t! But it will take away one of its primary avenues of dissemination.
The question media need to ask themselves is this: Is the average “impressionable” Sunni Muslim in London or Brussels or New York more likely to be introduced to the ISIS spectacle via a random jihadist on Twitter (the average of which has 1,014 followers) or from CNN, which reaches 387 million homes worldwide and gets over 14 million clicks a day? The answer, mathematically speaking, is of course the latter. Indeed, one can even trace the popularity of so-called ISIS social media propagandist by their corollary appearances in western media.
Consider the case of UK radical imam Anjem Choudary. During the escalation of the US war against ISIS in fall of 2014, the greatest thing that ever happened to his social media brand was his numerous appearances on corporate media—from CNN to Fox News to the Washington Post to the highest-rated news program on television, CBS’s 60 Minutes. His Twitter following, according archive records, more than doubled from August to November thanks to this exposure.
What caused this sudden surge in popularity? The answer, to anyone who’s taken Public Relations 101, is obvious: There is no such thing as bad publicity, and the Choudarys of the world know this. The “rise” of these radical trolls is inextricably linked to their ability to provoke media into “confronting” them.
Terrorism—to the extent the term has any meaning—is a fundamentally postmodern crime. To have any economy of scale, terrorism needs as many people to be “terrorized” as possible, which necessarily requires a mass media apparatus to disseminate this terror—otherwise the PR value of an act of terror does not justify the relatively small death count. The rise of terrorism, as such, directly tracks to the rise of mass communication. This is why one doesn’t hear much about medieval militants blowing up markets: Absent mass media, it’s not a very good use of resources.
Al Qaeda, for example, sacrificed a handful of commandos and a few million dollars on an act of violence that killed 3,000 people–approximately 0.2 percent of the total deaths caused by the US in its responses to this attack (estimated at 1.3 million). Yet here we are, 14 years on, and the US is still bogged down in a multi-theater war against an indefinable enemy that has cost the nation $5 trillion dollars with no end in sight.
Jihadists long ago learned to weaponize our own media against us. The question is: At what point will our media stop serving its predictable role as far-right Islam’s No. 1 recruiting tool?