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.