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
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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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