Are the press working for ISIS?

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As this week has shown it is rare when ISIS aren’t dominating the headlines. Coverage of their human rights violations are all over the news and every story is shocking and brutal.

We’ve seen pilots burned alive, countless people beheaded, gay men hurled from the top of buildings and lovers stoned to death.

I, like most people, have been stunned at how fast ISIS have moved, they control an area the size of the UK and have about five to six million people living under their rule. They are portrayed as a powerful and terrifying force in the media, their message is simple and polarising - you are either with them or against them. But is this an orchestrated move on their part? And are the press assisting ISIS in promoting this image and publicising their crimes on such a regular basis?

In the first of our new In a Nutshell podcast series I set out to find the answers to these questions.

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ISIS wants to spread its message to as many people as possible. So what’s the best way to do that? They choose videos and images to release onto digital platforms knowing they will attract attention and create a talking point. As more people join the discussion and the information spreads, the press relays this as news and it becomes a method of mass distribution.    

Spreading fear

Using the media is tactical and works in several different ways. Firstly, it helps to spread fear amongst their enemies.

‘Mosul was taken over by ISIS in a couple of days because the population had been primed by extreme and quite sophisticated advertising through social media and what gets picked and then reproduced by your mainstream media of their brutality.’
Donatella Rovera, Amnesty Senior Crisis Response Advisor

In other words, the press helps to instil fear in the enemies of ISIS, which is useful when you’re trying to gain territory.

But this isn’t the only way that this kind of reporting works in their favour. ISIS needs new recruits to sustain itself. In order to persuade Muslims from around the world to leave their families, communities, towns and countries, they must encourage feelings of being isolated from the rest of society. Professor Peter Neumann from Kings College London told me ‘ISIS has an interest in Muslims in European countries to be alienated, to be disconnected from political mainstream.’

This is crucial in their recruitment, to pick off these individuals, in other words it is in their interest to polarise Muslims, and then offer an answer, social media helps them present that solution.

Diverting attention

The presentation of this extremist group also deflects from some of the wider issues. The dominant image of ISIS is that of soldiers rampaging through the desert committing atrocities.

Kristyan Benedict says:

‘For people in the West looking at ISIS through the mainstream media, you’re mainly going to see people with beards and guns, decapitating people and blowing things up - and having a focus on the foot soldiers is not going to solve the problem of ISIS. We’ve got to look at the funders and facilitators, the people who are holding it together.’
Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty Crisis Campaign Manager

So does this preoccupation with the soldiers divert attention away from some of the larger questions?

Popular debate tends to centre around the human rights violations committed with alarming regularity.

Whilst there is material out there examining some of the other areas crucial to their success, it’s much more common to see a man with a beard poised pre-strike with a sword or gun. In fact, their clothing, that of their captives, and the wider backdrop to these scenes has become somewhat iconic.

Communications strategy

We spoke to Farah Pandith, the first ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the United States Department of State and a fellow at Harvard. She explained how ISIS have learned from other groups and improved their communications strategy.

They have replaced long sermons with slick, pithy videos with high production values.

‘[ISIS] have to be able to sustain their brand... No-one is really talking about some of the iconic images that they’re putting out there, about who they are, how they’re dressed, what they do, where they're getting their uniforms. How are they building their brand?’
Farah Pandith, US Department of State

Farah makes an interesting point when she refers to their ‘brand’. ISIS have managed to define and control quite clearly what people think and feel when they hear their name.

They’ve also managed to secure headlines on a regular basis across many mainstream publications. The question is has the media, played into the hands of ISIS and are we inadvertently bolstering their brand when we report their stories every day?

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About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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