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Accomplice to ISIL: Traditional News and Social Media in the Age of Terrorism

In early February, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a recognized terrorist organization, released a video that depicted the gruesome execution of First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian fighter pilot. While ISIL is known for beheading its enemies and filming the process, this video upped the ante, showing al-Kasasbeh as he is burned alive in a cage. The horrifying death is interspersed with messages from ISIL encouraging its audience to join the cause and listing the names of other fighter pilots as future victims.

The video was initially shared by ISIL on social media platforms and was then picked up by traditional news outlets. The coverage of the video exemplifies terrorist groups’ new reliance on social media, rather than traditional media, to gain popularity. The US government has focused on the proliferation of terrorist organizations’ social media platforms, while ignoring the role traditional media plays in publicizing terrorist groups’ actions and granting them the recognition that they seek.

In the past, traditional media outlets have been the gatekeepers to terrorist groups’ notoriety; violent acts were committed in the hopes of media coverage that would publicize the message of terrorist groups. Often times terrorists groups would attack areas where a formidable media infrastructure was already in place: in 1972, Palestinian terrorist group Black September purposefully targeted athletes during the Olympics in the Munich Olympic village, where many news outlets were already stationed. In this way, media outlets are both witnesses and accomplices to terrorism. Political Science Professor Bridget L. Nacos writes, “Without massive news coverage the terrorist act would resemble the proverbial tree falling in the forest.”

The strategic implantation of videos such as the gruesome execution of a Jordanian fighter pilot on social media platforms reflects the shifting strategies of terrorist organizations. In directing their efforts towards social media, rather than attempting to attract traditional media in large-scale acts of violence, the organizations are gaining traction on their own, with the help of a globalized social media sphere. This has an obvious benefit: Rather than stage one major attack, putting their group at risk of capture, the groups can commit smaller acts of violence that are less volatile to carry out, as well as, in cases where ISIL directly produces videos or content, tightly control how the horrors are depicted. ISIL even has its own media department, the Al-Hayat Media Center, which produces content that targets specific groups for recruitment. Al-Hayat recently created an app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings that connects with users’ Twitter feeds to automatically tweet updates about ISIS activities. The video is just the latest component in ISIL’s complex social media strategy, in which horrifying execution videos and strategic propaganda magazines are complemented by ISIL’s average of 90,000 tweets a day.

However, social media websites are fighting back. YouTube has repeatedly taken down the video’s many versions; Facebook won’t allow it to be posted. Less reactive efforts forged by social media websites, including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, have repeatedly attempted to combat ISIL’s use — once the ISIL Twitter app, for example, started to receive attention, it was taken off of the Android store. While users can theoretically re-upload the video to YouTube, or re-submit the app to the app store, the act of removing this content from such user-driven websites means that social media website are, at the very least, taking measures to censor the propaganda created by terrorist organizations.

In contrast, traditional media outlets have continued to espouse and circulate the terrorist groups’ content, but the coverage differs from previous journalistic reports of terrorist attacks. Some media outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, chose to withhold the video, just showing stills from before he was put in the cage. But The Daily Beast and Buzzfeed both published pictures of the pilot as he was engulfed in flames. Fox News eventually raised the stakes, publishing the full 22-minute video on their website. John Moody, the executive editor of Fox News, said in a statement: “After careful consideration, we decided that giving readers of the option to see for themselves the barbarity of ISIL outweighed legitimate concerns about the graphic nature of the video.” Moody has argued that the video is just a few clicks away for any Internet-user, so the decision to publish it on has no real effect on the video’s spread.

However, in sharing stills from the film, Fox News and other complicit media conglomerates are doing something that social media refuses to do: Under the guise of journalism, they take the liberty of publishing terrorist-produced propaganda, even if it doesn’t serve a journalistic purpose. Bruce Shapiro, executive director of Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, says that editors typically decide to publish such disturbing content only if the content offers news value. The video failed this test, he says, since “we already know that ISIL is capable of astonishing brutality.” Along with circulating terrorist messages, traditional media outlets amplify ISIL’s global platform. The Atlantic reported on a study showing that potential terrorists on social media are “interconnected within self-selected bubbles, and are isolated from anything outside…there are limits to how far [their] message can spread beyond those circles.” Traditional media outlets, like Fox, have a much broader audience, so the terrorist message can spread further.

One could argue that Fox’s audience isn’t ISIL’s target audience for recruitment, so the issue is null. ISIL uses social media to target and recruit the young people that use social media and rely less on traditional news outlets. However, younger viewers turn back to traditional media when they can find new content, unavailable or banned on social media, like the ISIL fighter pilot video. One pro-ISIL twitter account tweeted: “Whoever is looking for [a version of the video], here it is and it cannot be deleted because it is on an American network.” By publishing this content, media outlets are attempting to carve out a space for themselves in the digital sphere, and as a result, attract the same younger audience that ISIL targets. If they can publish offensive and sensational material under the guise of journalism, they can set themselves apart from other, non-journalistic Twitter users who might tweet about the news. In the end, the demographic gap between ISIL’s young target audience and the older audience of Fox shrinks when Fox decides to offer the sensational news that ISIL followers and curious detractors want.

The US government has acknowledged terrorists’ use of social media to recruit new members, but ignores the role that traditional media plays. While the State Department is expanding the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which focuses on blunting terrorist messages on social media, there has been almost no reaction to traditional media outlets’ decisions to host terrorist content. U.S. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, believes, correctly, that terrorist groups are using social media to gain publicity and recruit new members. In an op-ed for CNN, Rep. Poe argues that social media companies need to remove terrorist content more effectively, designating specific anti-terrorism teams to sort through posts and developing stricter anti-terrorism filters. Rep. Poe concludes, “American newspapers would have never allowed the Nazis to place an ad for recruitment during World War II. Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations should not be allowed to use private American companies to reach billions of people with their violent propaganda in an instant, all for free.” While “private American companies” refers specifically to social media companies, the fundamental fallacy of his argument is that he fails to condemn the traditional media outlets that host the videos as well. The ISIL video is clearly an ad for recruitment, calling explicitly for the deaths of other fighter pilots—why are American companies publishing the unedited version?

Criticizing news outlets for their content brings up an obvious free speech issue: The US government is hesitant to censor traditional media, because news outlets can claim that they host ISIL propaganda for journalistic purposes. This differs from censoring propaganda on social media, where users — in this case, terrorists — submit their own content. Poe points out that the Supreme Court has held that if someone has aided a terrorist organization, their right to free speech no longer applies. However, censoring terrorist-submitted content has yet to raise the same free speech issue as censoring journalists. If spreading the ISIL fighter pilot video on Fox News has no journalistic intent, it’s nearly indistinguishable from diffusing it throughout Facebook. In order to protect national security, proponents of the war on terror argue that we need to stem the flow of ISIL propaganda. In order to effectively do this, the US government can’t just focus on social media, but rather needs to hold traditional news outlets accountable as well. Discussing the complicity of traditional media, as well as social media, in spreading terrorist propaganda needs to be part of the larger anti-terrorism strategy.

About the Author

Rebecca Hansen '17 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.