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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