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Are we helping ISIS by running its videos on the news?

Haider Al-Safi

is head of project, consolidating media freedoms in Iraq, BBC Media Action. Twitter: @Haider888

ISIS video on BBC News website

For the past few weeks pictures of militants from ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham) have covered the front pages and headlines of news bulletins in media across the world. The Western media in particular portray ISIS like something out of Harry Potter: an army of demons coming out from the underworld, or a group that seems to rise from the ashes of civil war and destruction.  

But, one may ask, is this the right way to portray this kind of militant group? What kind of impact does this coverage have? Are media organisations inadvertently ‘helping’ ISIS in its war?

There are techniques used by these groups that enable them to win battles without even fighting them. For example, I’ve been told that when ISIS militants capture a soldier they sometimes call their unit commanders or colleagues and make them listen to the sound of the bullets fired at the captured soldier during their execution. The echo of the bullets and the screams can clearly be heard, and normally the call ends with the threat ‘You will be next’.

ISIS has uploaded execution videos which show how ‘powerful’ it is. Its videos about executing policemen, government officials and soldiers are posted as part of a well-understood strategy of psychological warfare. This kind of publicity has many goals but, most importantly, it aims to intimidate the Iraqi security forces and break their will to fight. This explains how fewer than 3,000 fighters from ISIS managed to seize Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul within hours, even though it was protected by three divisions of the Iraqi army.

In recent years social media have become one of the main news sources for media organisations, but for militant groups like ISIS they are even more important. Social media enable them to fight psychological warfare. The horrifying images of masked men, a faceless enemy, have helped these groups to intimidate the public.

Downloading social media content, mainstream news organisations have used pictures of mass executions, aimed at showing the barbaric actions such militant groups. But the use of these pictures to show how heartless and cruel the group is, in fact serves the interests of ISIS and similar organisations. Winning the hearts and minds of the public is hardly the aim of the extremists. Rather they want the media to show how a group of ‘devoted’ religious men has abandoned life’s luxuries to fight a ‘holy war’.

In addition, it aims to alienate Muslims from the societies in which they are living, especially in the West. The recent reports of many recruits joining ISIS from the West helped prove the group’s success. Meanwhile the media organisations and analysts that have labelled the group ‘Islamic jihadists’ need to consider the expression carefully. The term ‘jihad’ is exactly what ISIS wants to describe what it is doing; it is just how ISIS wants Muslims to brand its fight.

I believe the media capabilities of ISIS have not been taken sufficiently seriously. In the past weeks some Western media organisations have expressed doubt about the authenticity of pictures posted by ISIS, saying ‘the quality was too high’. I am not sure what leads these experts to draw this conclusion. Do they think an organisation like this, fighting in three countries, cannot buy and use professional filming equipment? The group’s productions show that it has teams of specialists, including writers, editors and camera operators. It films most of its activities. The content is edited, labelled with its logo, and accompanied by music as well as powerful texts, and even poetry; the final, highly finished product is published on the internet.   

And the evidence shows that the extremists have a lot of experience in using social media. They started by using internet chat rooms, and then moved on to Facebook, Twitter and, most importantly, YouTube.

ISIS and its fellow extremist organisations fully understand the media game, and have mastered it.  They exploit the thirst for footage among news agencies and provide material to create the impression they want to spread.

For this reason we need to reconsider how to deal with such images. I think the time has come to discuss new editorial guidelines on how to deal with organisations like ISIS and its clones.