Isis: Media, marketing and murder

“The advance of an army used to be marked by war drums. Now it’s marked by volleys of tweets,” wrote J.M. Berger in The Atlantic. Hind Shoufani comments on the media blackout surrounding atrocities by Isis 

I have been trying to instigate an argument (just to see how it might go down) with my new partner for six months now. It has been a futile endeavour. He blatantly refuses to fight with me. A good thing, I suppose.

But then, last week, while working on editing my new poetry collection, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) finally managed to cause our first heated argument. James Foley, the American journalist abducted in Syria, was violently beheaded in Iraq. I did not watch the video, but I told my partner about it and the ensuing Twitter-storm raging. He was furious. An Isis hater of the first degree, he is also an Englishman who thinks we must never corrupt our minds with images of extreme violence that would permanently nestle into our subconscious; that the dignity of human beings must never be tarnished thus; and that out of respect for the family of the deceased we should never watch, share or comment on such immoral videos.

I, being Palestinian and the daughter of a PLO leader, have seen innumerable atrocities inflicted on my people, and for as long as I can remember, our local TV channels have unabashedly publicly broadcasted the carnage of pain associated with conflicts in the region. “You are desensitised to the disgusting images,” he accused.

I became very curious about the PR machine, propaganda and marketing campaigns of Isis online, and was subsequently commissioned to write this piece.

“The confrontation between the West and Islamic State (Isis) will, like all military campaigns, be influenced by who wins the propaganda war for hearts and minds, and Islamic State’s online army – dubbed ‘the new disseminators’ by radicalisation experts – are providing crucial backup to the brutal Isis operatives in the field,” wrote Mark Townsend and Toby Helm in The Observer. “Never before has a conflict been played out in real time to a global audience… The video’s deft editing and high production values cemented the credentials of Isis as a slick but shocking social media outfit, mixing barbaric content with a ‘jihadi cool’ aesthetic.”

Little did I know at the time of the rabbit hole of sheer overwhelming horror I would enter while doing research.

For someone accustomed – but not desensitised – to graphic violent images, I was still unprepared for the wholesale intentional incitement for murder that the Isis marketing machine boasts. The two most popular sites used by militants were apparently Twitter and the Latvian-based site Ask.FM and I chose to delve into Twitter.

I almost wished I didn’t read Arabic. Once you enter the Arabic language marketing material section of Isis’s online presence, the full extent of their capability to distort religious quotes and take advantage of any vagueness in the text to contrive meaning that provokes further hatred of the other, mock the hardships and plight of minorities, and recruit fighters for their ‘State’ is revealed.

The Twitter accounts of these men flaunted guns and tanks and ammunition as their header photo. Their bios ran along lines such as “After reading endless history, I have decided that the only way the caliphate ship can move forward is on an ocean of blood and towards a mountain of skulls and limbs”. Other accounts complimented the murderer of James Foley on his skill with the knife, and blessed him. Comments on the tweet made allusions to the fact that he was killed with the left hand and not the right hand. “He’s not worthy of being beheaded by a right hand,” responded another. On and on went the social media terror. Threats to all Americans were made, civilians and otherwise. The worst part of the tweet was a gigantic smiley placed after calls for ethnic cleansing. Often times they use the very popular greeting for Arabs – Peace Be Upon You – and then in the next breath they call for executions. Their examples of heroes and myths and tales and moral lessons and fables are centuries old. They apply the same concepts, morals and encouragement to our issues in 2014 and their ‘enemy’, be it Obama or other Arabs. They call all Westerners ‘The Crusaders’, without knowing how little of Christianity is at the core of the US’s brutal government foreign policy. The ignorance is astounding, particularly when mixed with homicidal rage.

On the other end of the spectrum, a lovely Libyan lady named Hend, whose handle is @LibyaLiberty, started a hashtag maelstrom by penning the #IsisMediaBlackout, pertaining to the video of James Foley. Hundreds swiftly followed and many did not retweet the clip. This polarised opinion online. On one hand, sharing would strengthen the terrifying reach of Isis, give them more attention, degrading the dignity of the victims, and offering free marketing and propaganda. It would hail them as no-nonsense fighters who mean business.

The other party claims that not sharing such information – and in particular the Foley clip – would stop the world from rising to fight them. They are upset that there was only a serious media blackout when it was a Western, kind, loved and honourable man being beheaded. Many wondered: Where was the media outrage and blackout when hundreds of Iraqis and Syrians were being killed? And not wrongly, I must admit.

Can we even have a media blackout in this day and age? I trolled the Isis Twitter accounts in despair, and though I had not watched the clip of the beheading, I was smacked in the face by an image of Foley on the ground with his head placed on his body on a timeline that I immediately reported to Twitter. I reported several. Twitter told me that since I was not personally involved, or threatened, they could do nothing. What a joke. Am I not personally involved? Does the unraveling of a region I love not personally threaten me?

Many of these English and Arabic Twitter accounts have been deleted. They mushroom right back. Owners bemoan the loss of thousands of followers. They support one another by giving out the new handles of their colleagues, asking people for support. They are incredibly polite with one another, sending blessings, and kindred thoughts to their brethren, replete with inside jokes and their own creative hashtags. They also use the fact that Twitter shuts them down to promulgate the notion that they are oppressed and persecuted. The Isis online ‘activists’ have gotten smarter with a little time and experience, referring to terrible images and beheadings and inciting revenge without actually sharing images of that to avoid being flagged as inappropriate media.

“You have to be quick,” says Patrick Baz, AFP photo manager for the Middle East and North Africa. “The links can disappear from one minute to the next. And often Twitter will delete accounts with violent content.”

Their videos are subtitled, captioned, edited and all that jazz. A team of experts are working 24/7 to publish this propaganda. “That is what the foreign jihadis have added to this latest Middle East war, a profound understanding of a science which we hitherto thought – in some unenlightened, blimp-like way – belonged to us. We still have not reflected deeply enough about the internet in this context,” said Robert Fisk in The Independent. He added: “The Taliban used to hang television sets on trees. No more. Like so many others, I admired al-Baghdadi’s wrist-watch on the famous video of his Mosul sermon. For now we also live in the Age of Rolex.”

But can and would Twitter shut them all down? Where on the spectrum of free speech does this lie? PR is often about damage limitation for brands, says my partner. Can a media blackout even work in this day and age where nothing on the internet can ever really disappear?

Isis also created their own app, which users of Twitter can download through Play on Google, and this app sends out pre-packaged content from Isis information headquarters on behalf of all the individual user accounts. The app spaces out tweets in time, to avoid alerting the Twitter spamming scrutiny.  Eventually, Twitter shut down the account of the author of the app and Google removed it from the store, but not before 40,000 tweets were sent out the ominous day that they marched on Mosul.

Can third party censorship really work? I don’t think so. I personally agree that we should not share information that would demean the lives of the deceased, be it babies in Gaza or journalists in Iraq. This was not always my stance when I was younger. I am less interested in blatant images now, and can feel the horror of the situation just reading the words. But I don’t think we can drown out the effect of their marketing campaigns, the cyber world being too decentralised to contain any of their multiplying mouthpieces.

“One of Isis’s more successful ventures is an Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, or just Dawn. The app, an official Isis product promoted by its top users, is advertised as a way to keep up on the latest news about the jihadi group,” wrote J.M. Berger in the The Atlantic. “As a result of these strategies, and others, Isis is able to project strength and promote engagement online. For instance, the Isis hashtag consistently outperforms that of the group’s main competitor in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, even though the two groups have a similar number of supporters online. In data I analysed in February, Isis often registered more than 10,000 mentions of its hashtag per day, while the number of al-Nusra mentions generally ranged between 2,500 and 5,000. Isis also uses hashtags to focus-group messaging and branding concepts, much like a Western corporation might.”

What is our job as citizens – specially those of us heavily involved in passing on news and analysis – against the murder of anyone? How can we play a role in combatting the sectarian hate speech being lauded by others? Questions I have no answer to, but must pose.

“One downside of attempting to drive extremists from social media is that it will drive them further into the deep web,” wrote Townsend and Helm. “Last week’s Twitter crackdown has already witnessed extremists gravitate towards Diaspora, a decentralised network with data stored on private servers which cannot be controlled by a single administrator.”

Should we see those images? Implant in our minds the reality of the barbaric medieval warfare happening at our doorsteps, those of us who have lived in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan? Can our vision of the Levant combat that of Isis?

Do we bury their bad news stories? How much depression have we inflicted on millions of Arabs by endless streams of graphic slaughter images on parade?

And how much influence do they actually have? For over a week, I read many media analyses on their influence, which yielded very little factual information. Isis appears to be getting anonymous photos supporting the caliphate – replete with drawings of their flag photographed against famous cultural backdrops worldwide – to bolster their social media campaign, but until this day it is unclear how much recruitment is successfully happening through online engagement. But the work to ‘brand’ their particular goals and message continues, unabated. They have a propaganda unit, the Al Hayat Media Centre, which produces high-production videos and a magazine.

What can we learn from this mess? In this terrible new world they have created, how do we rate ourselves as humans sensitive to the suffering of others? Does it all become unreal? How many blown up buildings in Gaza, children in morgues and dead men in Iraq do we need to see for it to become mundane reality that we complain about, grit our teeth against to get on with our day? Are our bodies shutting down to the imagery of ceaseless violence we imbibe on a daily basis, those of us in the Middle East, far away from the sanitised news? I still think about this, in an ongoing attempt to be on the right side of history. For now, there will be no sharing of images of heartbreaking violence inflicted on murdered people, and there will be constant verbal denouncing of the wars waged by terrorists, no matter who they work for, condemning both sides for the plight of hundreds of thousands in the region.

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