Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has dominated the news for months now. With the assistance of Western media distribution, ISIS has masterfully used graphic videos and pointed propaganda to encourage Western hysteria.
On June 29, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi established an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East. The group’s aim is to create an Islamic state stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf—a state following the direct religious rule of al-Baghdadi. While the prospect is intimidating, the possibility of this plan succeeding has been greatly exaggerated.
Media coverage of four gruesome beheadings carried out by ISIS exemplify both ISIS’s public relations prowess and the overreaction of mainstream media. Each beheading was revealed through a short video, narrated in English, in order to produce a powerfully disturbing image. In each video of an American being beheaded, a British ISIS member points at the camera and addresses President Barack Obama, saying American blood is on Obama’s hands.
Although much fewer than the number of Iraqi casualties, these four deaths have been widely publicized, largely thanks to Western media. Hoping to break the juiciest story, every news channel pursued the most horrific events, intentionally foregoing all context. Predictably, the American response was a panicked frenzy. In less than a month, the ISIS productions had captivated the country and forced Obama to take action.
Diplomacy and World Affairs professor Laura Hebert sees parallels between the current situation and the “CNN effect” of the early 1990s, when 24-hour news stations seemed to have a startlingly strong impact on American policy. In the Somalian Civil War, news channels such as CNN swayed public opinion by broadcasting images of mass starvation and dead American soldiers.
In the case of ISIS, it is apparent that news stations are once again instilling fear in the American people by broadcasting ISIS’s videos. These videos were the result of a concerted effort to produce media for Western consumption. Propaganda videos, consciously scripted in English, show Toyotas filled with armed men shooting errantly and killing anything in their path.
“The beheadings have repulsed Americans,” Hebert said. “They bolster public support for a more aggressive response by the Obama administration and very problematically solidify for many Americans the belief that Islam encourages believers to engage in violence.”
The fear generated by these images has impacts beyond the initial hysteria. Our own distribution of ISIS’s terrifying videos solidifies the belief that ISIS is an organized and well-directed group.
“The revulsion and fear generated by the beheadings, in a twisted way, offers confirmation that ISIS is achieving its objectives,” Hebert said.
Armed with a handful of images and a few Wikipedia searches, Americans justify their fear. Footage aired on TV is sensationalized and unrepresentative, and ISIS is successfully generating fear in the American public. But we must not panic into a social media sharing frenzy. Instead, it is vital to maintain context and not extrapolate from the hype generated by mainstream-media. In doing such, we can combat ISIS on an individual level.