The scene has become too familiar. Grey sky and bright sands. A kneeling man, dressed in a bright orange prison-like uniform. Another man, dressed completely in black, bears over him. He holds a knife, and knowing how it will be used I can’t help but think it looks much too small. The man kneeling gives a surprisingly coherent speech directed at his family and the enemy, in this case US President Barack Obama, before he’s beheaded.

I hesitated before watching the decapitations. I couldn’t help but feel like a voyeur. But I did watch, and felt deeply unsettled—in the same way I did watching the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre fall back in 2001. In the words of David Carr from the New York Times, there is a sense that “everything has changed, no one is safe,” that we’re “impotent against 
true believers”.

The videos were revealing and disturbing, but not in the ways I had expected. They were shocking and graphic of course, but they were jarring because there was a surprising level of restraint in their production. The videos were carefully shot, coherently edited and released in high definition. Gone were the grainy and jumpy videos filmed on mobile phones. In those you could barely make out the pixelated shadows of people let alone verify a murder. These latest videos were different. They were well lit and clear: they looked professional and were strategically released for maximum impact.

In the last video I watched, the murder itself felt staged. The orange Guantanamo jail jumpsuit and all-black jihadist uniform were costumes. The bright, sandy desert: a movie set, on-location. So that we could hear him without the distortion of a desert wind, the killer wore a wireless microphone, which would be more at home in a theatre or live broadcast than on the site of a terrorist beheading. Even the editing was carefully thought out. The beheading itself wasn’t shown, only the knife at the throat, the initial cut, then a quick fade to black. One of the last images shown was the head carefully arranged, cradled in the hands of 
the victim.

There’s no doubt that these videos had a director. They were gory without being gratuitous. Shocking but still shareable. They wanted these videos to go viral on Facebook and Twitter, but for that to happen they needed to show some restraint. And it’s the thought that had gone into this brazen strategy that was in some ways the most chilling aspect. Dr Kate Bowles from the University of Wollongong’s School of Arts, English and Media believes that this chilling development, what she calls the “emotional force” of these “planned killings”, stems from our everyday “dance around mortality”. “To see it played out affects us all,” she told me. It reminds us that “we’re all only here for a short time”.

Extremists, realising the effectiveness of a solid media strategy, are leveraging our addiction to social media, and our fascination with the spectacle of death, to cultivate this fear and spread their message. Terror has gone social, and very much in high definition.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham—or ISIS or ISIL or IS depending on who is speaking—the group behind the decapitations of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines, has brought about this social media game changer. Part terrorist organisation, part state, ISIS is calling radical Muslims around the world to join them in their creation of a caliphate, an Islamic state with a supreme religious figure as its head. The group has surprised the world, not only with its incredibly violent videos showing massacres of Muslims, Christians and Yazidi alike, but its ability to take, and hold, large swathes of territory. Despite looking like it was fading into obscurity just a year ago, it’s estimated that they have controlled up to 35 per cent of Iraq and Syria—a territory about the same size as Jordan in which an estimated 10 million people live. The group controls and profits from key infrastructure, funding its operations with oil wells and seized banks. ISIS even briefly occupied the Haditha dam on the Euphrates River that if opened could have 
flooded Baghdad.

A large part of their success can be attributed to their online reach. They have successfully created a mix of content that ranges from gruesome violence to soft propaganda depending on the audience. As well as the brutal beheadings, for example, ISIS uploaded a compilation of their favourite terrorist attacks, a veritable ‘best of’ massacres and suicide bombings designed to appeal to foreigners with a penchant for killing. At the other end of the scale, they have developed tourism-style videos showing intelligent, young idealists having a good time to appeal to more moderate, disenfranchised Sunnis. These videos are then pushed to their targeted audiences by leveraging regional languages and social platforms. The strategy has worked better than 
anyone expected.

Their reach has even extended into the relatively stable Lebanon, much better known for nightclubs and beaches than extremist Islam. “The Islamic State will break the cross!” read a message recently graffitied on a small church in Tripoli. Only a few kilometres away another church was defaced, this time with the proclamation: “The Islamic State is coming”. While likely perpetrated by excitable youths, the messages reflect the uncertainty and fear pervading the Middle East.

Have we lost the capacity to pause and honour a human life in the moment of its ending?

“Tensions are definitely on the rise,” says a reporter from Beirut who I spoke to on condition of anonymity. “People are being extremely cautious—there’s a distinct wariness here.”

Like the beheadings haunting the West, Lebanon has also seen its fair share of filmed decapitations. In early August 2014 the Islamic State raided the border city of Arsal, and while the offensive was technically unsuccessful—they were pushed out by the army—ISIS took with them 24 hostages. In a move now characteristic of the group, ISIS issued demands, in this case the release of prisoners, that when unmet saw the decapitation of soldiers. One by one.

“This new wave of videos is much more sophisticated—we haven’t really seen anything of this quality before,” Alister McMillan, editor of world news at The Australian, told me. “It’s a new phenomenon.”

Scott Shane, a national security reporter with the New York Times, says that while ISIS’ message might seem barbaric and medieval, its dissemination is “very 21st century”. He says there has been a traceable evolution of terrorist media strategy. “Osama Bin Laden was the first generation using pre-internet media, with smuggled videotapes to Al Jazeera... The second might be Anwar al-Awlaki, an American born Yemeni cleric, who spoke in a much more understandable style and colloquial English—he even had a blog and a Facebook page. And now we have this third generation which is very sophisticated in its video production, in its use of Twitter and other social media”.

ISIS, Shane says, is online jihad 3.0. It employs the use of dozens of Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts, and when one is blocked, dozens spring up to replace it. As well as having a standard press officer, which on the surface seems strange for an extremist terror inspiring organisation, their videos are edited by professionals, many of them foreign, who borrow techniques from Hollywood, video games and even television dramas. Their sensational dispatches are then echoed and amplified on social media. But with these new tactics comes a familiar debate: at what point does reporting on these terrorist media releases—or even sharing them online—serve to promote ISIS’ cause? The videos are released, after all, for the purposes of publicity, and to provoke a response from world citizens and 
their governments.

The Australian’s McMillan argues that the role of mainstream media is important: they provide context and analysis that doesn’t often accompany online viewings. ”We’re not glamorising them,” he said, “I’d rather a young person who’s thinking about heading over there read our take on ISIS than read the things coming from their channels.” The now iconic desert scene, with the orange jumpsuit and British-accented killer, has been plastered across the front pages of newspapers around the world. The New York Post in particular was criticised for their front page depiction of James Foley with the knife at his throat, a heartbeat before his decapitation. After the second beheading, of Steven Sotloff, freelance journalist Jeb Boone tweeted: “Can’t believe this bears repeating, but one should not empower ISIS by publishing their PR materials.”

“It’s a major debate that is still underway,” The Australian’s McMillan continues, “We’ve run [these images] prominently—not on the front page but prominently in the world section… There’s a tension between our obligation to show readers the full horror, and to not give terrorists publicity.”

Hermoine Macura, UOW alumna, news anchor and CEO of Straight Street Media, a global media consulting company based in the United Arab Emirates believes above all that “honest reporting is important”. She saw firsthand the human impact of civil war in Syria, out of which the modern ISIS was born. For her, that experience cemented the need to report without self-censorship. “I interviewed hundreds of refugees who had been tortured, displaced and raped. Some women had metal pipes and rodents inserted into their private parts as a torture tactic. While I would edit some graphic footage, I included all interviews and accounts of these cases so the world would know what is happening here.

Terror has gone social, and very much high definition.

“As a journalist and as a civilian I need to know the truth... I don’t believe in showing all the gruesome details however I don’t believe they should be overlooked,” she added. Dr Eric Loo, a journalism lecturer at the University of Wollongong, doesn’t believe this debate will disappear anytime soon. “It’s an extremely complex issue—the ethical decision isn’t clear. There’s certainly an argument to be made around transparency—but it’s important to keep in mind that these extremist groups want their message spread. They use these incredibly violent videos to recruit.”

But when these videos are shared online, bypassing newspapers and TV, does it really matter what the mainstream media show? Have they already lost control of the conversation? It would seem that the hands of old fashioned media outlets are tied: if they don’t report the press release-style beheadings, then they look out of touch, uninformed; if they do report them, then they look like they’re playing catch up, only picking up the social media scraps.

Dr Kate Bowles has a more philosophical perspective: “Constraining consumer opportunity to see whatever we want to see could be something good, something that would speak well of us. Perhaps 
we don’t grasp the significance of this.”

“What does it mean to be able to see this on my computer, in my kitchen, and then put a load of laundry on?” she said, “Have we lost the capacity to pause and honour a human life in the moment of 
its ending?”

This isn’t a new debate. In recent years journalists have been grappling with what terrorist actions to report, and have subsequently self-censored—particularly around cases of kidnappings and abductions that they argue could endanger the captive. Their resources have similarly been stretched as media outlets close foreign bureaus and remove foreign correspondents from their payroll. While the ‘go to’ source for world news was once the exclusive domain of prestigious papers, upstarts are challenging this mantle.

VICE News has been one surprising addition, branching out from its hipster magazines and heavily investing in edgy, daredevil news content shared largely online. They launched onto the world scene after using Dennis Rodman, a famous American NBA player, as a Trojan horse to get a film crew into basketball-crazy North Korea.

This year VICE News did it again: upping the stakes by embedding a video journalist within ISIS itself, providing a firsthand (albeit very controlled) glimpse into the world of the Islamic State. Respected journalist Medyan Dairieh spent two weeks with ISIS press officer Abu Mosa (who has since been killed in a Syrian airstrike). Throughout the 40-minute movie VICE News published, Dairieh reiterates the difficulty separating propaganda and journalism.

When asked how they managed to pull off something so daring, VICE News CEO Shane Smith simply responded: 
“We just asked.”

While some believe it’s innovative and engaging, many media pundits have labelled the ‘Vice-ification’ of online news, often shared without analysis, ‘stunt journalism’ that at best is misleading and at worst 
plain dangerous.

McMillan told me that this style of gonzo journalism is a reaction to the overregulation of coverage from other wars. “In previous conflicts it was very difficult for the media to get near the action. Journalists were embedded with Coalition forces and kept behind a fence. We weren’t seeing the real thing,” 
he said.

News coming out of Syria and Iraq, however, is not filtering through the experience of unit-embedded journalists. Instead we’re seeing a new wave of journalists visiting these places of conflict on their own terms—and instead of waiting to sell their work, they’re tweeting and ‘instagramming’ what they see. While this gives them—and us—incredible access to these areas, they’re operating in arguably the most dangerous places in the world, and kidnappings aren’t uncommon.

“Foley was extremely worldly, intelligent, smart, but at the end of the day it’s an incredibly unpredictable environment,” McMillan told me. Despite vast experience and connections, Foley wasn’t able to get out.

Terrorist states and media empires are both changing the ways they reach audiences—and unsurprisingly we’re moving online. For the consumer, the situation is complex. The good news is that we have incredible resources at our fingertips, as journalists share with us stories and images from the frontline. They are our witnesses to the atrocities of war. On the other hand, the very same networks give terrorists the ability to share their disturbing propaganda, allowing them to reach more people than ever before.

The videos are unlikely to end anytime soon. ISIS have a vested interest in seeing the chaos continue—but sensitive reporting has shown us not just the terror, but the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding. Journalists like Macura make it easier for us to understand the human tragedy of war.

While at this stage ISIS, Iraq and Syria seem like too big of a problem, there are some grounds for optimism. The growing strength and lightning progress of ISIS has resulted in soul searching across the Middle East. Everyday Muslims are leveraging the same mediums used by ISIS and journalists to tell the world that ISIS does not speak for them.

[Editor's note: this article was finalised late September 2014, further developments on this issue have not been included.]


  • NICHOLAS UNDERHILL
    UOW International Bachelor of Communication and Media Studies Honours (Journalism) 2013
  • HERMOINE MACURA
    UOW Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) 2003
Outlook 2014_ISIS and Media