How We’re Inadvertently Helping ISIS

There are no bad intentions. But by spreading ISIS’ pictures, we’re helping to disseminate their terror.

Tents at a temporary camp set up to shelter Iraqis fleeing violence on June 16, 2014 in Aski kalak, 40 kms west of the Kurdish autonomous region's capital Arbil.
National Journal
Matt Berman
June 17, 2014, 1:20 a.m.

You might have seen the pic­ture: on the left, a row of stand­ing men, mostly masked, aim­ing rifles; on the right, a line of men ly­ing face-down with their hands be­hind their heads. What you can as­sume comes next is as ob­vi­ous as it is ter­rible: mass ex­e­cu­tion, bod­ies left in shal­low graves.

The photo, and oth­ers like it, come from the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia, the vi­ol­ent ex­trem­ist group that has taken sev­er­al of Ir­aq’s ma­jor cit­ies in re­cent weeks and ap­pears to be on an in­ev­it­able col­li­sion course with Bagh­dad. CNN has been broad­cast­ing the pic­tures since the week­end. They’re all over Twit­ter. The Wash­ing­ton Post ran them as a series head­lined, “These dra­mat­ic im­ages show ap­par­ent mass ex­e­cu­tion of sol­diers by IS­IS.”

The im­ages are without a doubt dra­mat­ic. But be­fore we blast the pho­tos out, it’d make sense to ask ourselves: Who ex­actly are we help­ing by spread­ing these im­ages?

When we re­print or re­post or retweet pic­tures taken by a ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tion, pic­tures that were taken with the ex­pli­cit pur­pose of be­ing dis­sem­in­ated to as many people as pos­sible, to cre­ate as much fear and spur as much sec­tari­an vi­ol­ence as pos­sible, it’s a ques­tion worth ask­ing.

We’re drawn to pic­tures of hor­rible vi­ol­ence. That’s not in­her­ently in­hu­mane. Con­tra this Politico troll clas­sic about Ukraine, there’s noth­ing ne­ces­sar­ily wrong with be­ing drawn to­ward dis­aster porn. By and large, people ac­tu­ally care about people. See­ing graph­ic pic­tures of oth­er hu­mans in dis­tress is dis­turb­ing and en­gulf­ing. When we share these kinds of pic­tures, we’re not say­ing, “THIS IS AWE­SOME,” but rather, “This is ter­ri­fy­ing. Someone make this stop.”

Shar­ing dis­aster porn — the di­git­al equi­val­ent of grabbing someone by the shoulder and say­ing, “Stop, ser­i­ously, look at this” — is of­ten an act of em­pathy.

But the latest round of pixelated vi­ol­ence cir­cu­lat­ing on the In­ter­net is dif­fer­ent. Un­like the tra­gic pho­tos from Syr­ia or Ukraine, which were of­ten cap­tured by ma­jor me­dia or­gan­iz­a­tions or cit­izen journ­al­ists, these are taken by ter­ror­ists. The ter­ror­ism in the pho­to­graphs isn’t just the dozens be­ing killed — it’s the broad­cast of vi­ol­ence. IS­IS has a soph­ist­ic­ated pro­pa­ganda dis­tri­bu­tion net­work, high­lighted by a suc­cess­ful Ar­ab-lan­guage Twit­ter app. When the group com­mits vi­ol­ence, it has the ma­chinery in place to make sure you can feel it.

There’s journ­al­ist­ic and so­cial mer­it in spread­ing the evid­ence of what’s hap­pen­ing in Ir­aq, but this par­tic­u­lar evid­ence is man­i­cured by the people who are car­ry­ing out the ab­uses. It’s not journ­al­ism, and without veri­fic­a­tion, it’s not even an ac­cur­ate de­pic­tion of what’s hap­pen­ing. It’s pro­pa­ganda, and it’s play­ing on our em­pathy for dis­tri­bu­tion.

IS­IS is not what most people think of when they think of ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions. IS­IS is, for one thing, loaded. The group op­er­ates as if it were an in­de­pend­ent state, with an in­cred­ible level of or­gan­iz­a­tion. Dis­pers­ing video and im­ages of its vi­ol­ence has been one of its greatest suc­cesses.

The me­dia sat­ur­a­tion cre­ates an at­mo­sphere of fear, a fear that has helped res­ult in hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ir­aqis flee­ing rather than fight­ing IS­IS as the group moves through their coun­try.

IS­IS wants us to pub­li­cize their pic­tures. Without a healthy level of In­ter­net vir­al­ity, IS­IS could not gen­er­ate the wide­spread fear it needs to suc­ceed. Most people who are dis­trib­ut­ing the group’s work, wheth­er it’s CNN or your uncle on Face­book, don’t have bad in­ten­tions. But be­fore mak­ing that photo es­say, take a mo­ment to fig­ure out who most be­ne­fits from it.

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