Analysts Fail to Consider ISIS Execution Videos In Context

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Over at Slate, Joshua Keating has published a piece warning readers that ISIS’s execution videos are proving an effective recruitment tool. It’s a brief article, and does not purport to be exhaustive. Nevertheless, I believe it exemplifies a broader failure on the part of Western analysts to truly understand ISIS as a media phenomenon. ISIS’s Violence, the headline reads, Is Its Message. With all due respect to Keating, whose work I follow closely, this focus on raw content is at best an incomplete assessment. In fact, the persuasive power of the Islamic State’s messaging can only be understood when considered as a part of the larger media ecosystem in which it exists.

The ISIS phenomenon does not exist in a media vacuum any more than it does a political vacuum. Which is to say, the ISIS videos are not merely the sum of their frames. Indeed, these videos’ true persuasive power resides in the modality of their presentation. As I’ve argued before, Western censorship (both corporate and governmental), by deferring full dissemination to marginal, or even sympathetic, media organs, ironically does the work of a media buyer for ISIS’s “advertising and marketing” wing. When CNN (or Slate) fails to show these videos for their complete grotesque duration, they abdicate the power to contextualize, and therefore to shape meaning. That power then falls to the jihadi BBSes, the Western-critical leak sites, and avowed neoconservative propagandists who, for a variety of motives ranging from neutral to malicious, honest to Machiavellian, are willing to present these executions in full. Contrary to Keating’s implication, viewers, including potential ISIS recruits, never experience raw content. Raw content does not exist out of context. Rather, viewers consume, interact, and even merge psychologically with the totality of the media-viewing experience, with all its many messages, explicit and covert, friendly or otherwise.

At this point, Western analysts with better resources than mine are measuring and debating the actual effectiveness of the ISIS videos as recruitment tools. Good luck to them. But unless they conduct their research with an eye toward the complete media ecosystem in which these videos exist and are consumed, their conclusions will be at best incomplete, and more likely inaccurate and misleading. Perhaps such repellant acts of cruelty really are effective means of recruiting “ordinary” soldier-types. But if so, I sincerely doubt this would continue to be the case were the power to shape their meaning not already handed over to so many malicious and irresponsible actors.

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Filtering Extremist Content Only Massages the Process of Radicalization

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For reasons described below, this blog links to some very graphic content, which is labeled NSFW. Caveat spectator.

The Islamic State’s recent release of video depicting the murder of Kenji Goto [NSFW] comes amid increasing pressure from European government towards social media platforms to suppress violent and extremist content. On Friday, PandoDaily published a brief report on the European Parliament’s quixotic plan to block extremist digital content prior even to upload. Addressing the parliament, Google policy manager Verity Harding compared such an effort to “screening a phone call before it’s made.”

But beyond its practical impossibility, there is an important strategic argument against both the prior restraint favored by EU lawmakers, and such after-the-fact censorship as is already in place at user created content platforms like Facebook and YouTube. Whether filtering occurs as a result of government censorship or corporate policy, it nevertheless serves to organize extremist media into messaging hierarchies, according to levels of likely audience receptivity.

Extremist ideology may be understood as a commodity, one that is marketed and advertised for the purpose of acquiring moral, economic, political and military support. By filtering the worst expressions of extremist ideology, governments and media companies actually serve terrorist organizations in the manner of a media buyer to a brand, helping to target the groups’ marketing messages to the most likely receptive markets. Censorious digital media platforms shield casual viewers from that hateful and violent content which would most likely repel them. Meanwhile, humanizing messages such as @ISILCats and more conventional propaganda of righteous aggrievement are permitted to serve as the public face of the Islamist brand, offering a soft sell initiation into the terroristic sales funnel. Ideological consumers—charmed or emotionally moved by agreeable, public-facing propaganda—may then delve deeper into successively less censorious platforms, and their more extreme jihadi content.

The process of radicalization is, in part, one of acclimation and desensitization. Content filtering initiatives, such as those proposed by EU member nations, only massage that process. By removing terroristic messages from ready public viewing, we are neither punishing violent extremists, nor protecting innocent citizens. A call for total openness on our digital media platforms is not a free-speech-fundamentalist argument (though it admittedly serves those values). Violent jihadi propaganda is its own best counter-marketing. If presented without filter, its repellence and barbarity far outweigh its appeal. But that balance of content is only possible if this media is allowed to reach potential converts prior to their desensitization.