How the US Media Helps ISIS Spread its Propaganda
Like many of the fascist and extremist groups that came before it in history, ISIS is skilled with propaganda. Its videos are highly doctored and rife with special effects. It has its own 24-hour TV channel, magazine, and even merchandise. ISIS has a brand that it is marketing, as a corporation or even government does.
The central idea in ISIS’ propaganda strategy is to make itself look like a huge, omnipresent global threat when it is in fact relatively small and isolated. The corporate media, whether wittingly or not, helps it to do this.
If one were to only watch and read Western media reports, one would likely think that ISIS is an enormous global presence. Listeners are constantly reminded that “ISIS territory remains larger than many countries,” that the land ISIS controls is larger than Britain, and that ISIS is expanding. What is rarely mentioned is that much of the land ISIS controls is uninhabited or sparsely populated, and that the reason it easily overtook many of these areas is because there was often a weak local government and a feeble or even absent military.
One has to also differentiate the area ISIS controls from ISIS itself. The actual number of ISIS fighters is contested. Western intelligence estimates previously put the figure at around 30,000. At the upper limit, Kurdish intelligence sources hold that there are 200,000. Even if the upper estimate is accurate, this is still not very large vis-à-vis other states’ militaries.
This is not to dispute the fact that ISIS is obscenely violent and indefensible. ISIS does clearly pose a threat — but a threat to those living under or near its control, not those living thousands of miles away. After all, the vast preponderance of those who have been killed by ISIS have been Muslims living in the Middle East. By overstating the threat ISIS poses, the media only serves to amplify ISIS’ voice — which is precisely what the group wants.
Such an approach also draws attention away from the fact that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq that killed over one million people, in conjunction with the US’ subsequent support for a sectarian Iraqi government and Shia death squads that oppressed, brutalized, and even killed the Sunni minority, are the reasons Al-Qaeda came to Iraq in the first place, and are the reasons ISIS, which emerged from Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s ashes, has some support.
In its obsessive and insatiable appetite for histrionic headlines and sensationalist stories, nonetheless, the US media constantly claims that ISIS is behind this, that ISIS is behind that, that ISIS is in Mexico conspiring to topple the US government, that ISIS is on the path to take over the world.
The irrational media paranoia works. A September 2014 CNN poll found that 90% of Americans believe ISIS poses a threat to the US.
Of course, the media accomplishes all of this with little-to-no evidence (tweets constitute its favorite pieces of “evidence”) — basing its allegations most often simply on what ISIS itself says. The media also fails to emphasize that many of the foiled supposed “ISIS-linked” terrorist plots in the West often involve undercover police informants and/or provocateurs. The FBI and other forces buy bombs and then lure mentally ill people into doing incriminating things. The US government’s intentional entrapment of innocent Muslims is well-documented.
If another fringe fascist group made the threats and statements ISIS does, would the US media instantly eat them up and report them as news? This is not usually the case, fortunately. In these instances, journalists exercise more caution — as they should always do. Yet, every time a crime is committed or a terrorist plot is uncovered and ISIS claims credit, the US media takes the bait. Every time.
ISIS claimed credit for the May shootings at an anti-Islam event in Garland, Texas, organized by far-right demagogue and leading anti-Muslim crusader Pamela Geller and featuring fascist Dutch politician Geert Wilders.
The Huffington Post put a headline right at the top of its home page reading, in all-caps, “ISIS claims responsibility for Texas attack.” Under the picture, in much smaller text, is the crucial fact that it has given “no evidence of direct link to shooters.”
The article itself is titled “ISIS Claims Responsibility For Texas Cartoon Attack, Gives No Evidence Of Direct Link.” This headline has much more nuance. But how many readers will click the sensationalist headline on the front page and read the more nuanced one (yet alone the article below it)? Research shows not many will.
Is the media technically reporting a lie? No, it is true that ISIS claimed credit for the attacks. But, in typical corporate media fashion, it is hyper-emphasizing some facts (for which there is no evidence) while simultaneously de-emphasizing other ones. By constantly reporting that ISIS took credit for the attacks, the media draws attention away from the fact that there is not any evidence that the militant group is actually responsible.
Many readers are not very critical in their analysis of news. They see the headline “ISIS takes credit” all over the place, and they just assume that it has been concluded that ISIS is somehow affiliated. A mere day after the attack, far-right Islamophobic websites had already cited these reports as proof that ISIS was behind the attacks and is “waging a war on America.”
The mayor of Garland himself publicly emphasized that there is “no evidence” of ISIS’ supposed involvement in the attack, but the media barely reported this.
To be fair, this is not a problem that is exclusively limited to reports on ISIS — although the Western corporate media loves to exaggerate the supposed threat of “radical Islam.” When a tragic event like a shooting happens, the media, desperate to break the story as soon as possible, often publishes stories without adequate evidence.
This is, after all, the product of the very modus operandi of the corporate media: The more clicks an article gets, the more times advertisements on that article are seen; and the more times advertisements on that article are seen, the more money that publication makes. This is precisely why clickbait is such a widespread (and growing) phenomenon — and why it is so dangerous to real, substantive, fact-based journalism.
In the case of the Garland shooting, the corporate media’s clickbait compulsion is misleading the public, further inflaming Islamophobic sentiment and racism in the US, and simply propagating unsubstantiated claims. The fact that the unsubstantiated claims it is prematurely reporting are convenient to US government interests, effectively working to give legitimacy to the totalitarian lengths to which it has gone in its “War on Terror,” should not go unnoticed.
Nor is this the first time the US corporate media has essentially served as a willing mouthpiece for ISIS. In February 2015, Fox News faced criticism for circulating a gruesome, uncensored 22-minute ISIS propaganda video of Jordanian hostage Muadh al-Kasasbeh being burned to death on camera.
In effect, Fox decided to literally disseminate ISIS’ propaganda for it. YouTube and Facebook refused to allow users to post the video. Fox News did not exercise such discretion.
Numerous counter-terrorism analysts told The Guardian that, by publishing its videos, Fox was empowering ISIS. Senior associate in homeland security and terrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Rick Nelson remarked groups like ISIS “seek to strike terror in the hearts and minds of people globally, and by perpetuating these videos and putting them out there into the internet, it certainly expands the audience and potential effects.” “These groups need a platform, and this gives them a platform,” he added.
Malcolm Nance, the executive director of the Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics and Radical Ideology think tank explained the “whole value of terror is using the media to spread terror.” Fox News producers “are literally — literally — working for al-Qaida and Isis’s media arm,” he averred. “They might as well start sending them royalty checks.”
Fox’ goal in sharing the video was clearly to sensationalize and exaggerate the threat of ISIS — and to, when taken in conjunction with its long history of anti-Muslim bias, portray Islam negatively more generally. ISIS’ particular brand of extremism — which it should be pointed out is much more similar to European-style fascism than it is to most other Islamist groups (the vast majority of which are not violent terrorists) — helps reaffirm the insistence of Islamophobic fanatics that Islam is somehow uniquely and inherently violent.
This cozy relationship between right-wing Islamophobes and ISIS is exemplified in a piece by far-right pundit David Horowitz — whom the civil rights organization the Southern Poverty Law Center refers to as “the godfather of the modern anti-Muslim movement“ — literally titled “Thank You ISIS.”
Extremism researcher Malcolm Nance insisted that, by publishing the video, Fox News was propagating “exactly what ISIS wants to propagate.”
The idea that ISIS is behind terrorist attacks in the US like the Garland shootings is also exactly what the fascist group wants to propagate, in order to increase fear of it, and thus augment the power (and recruits) it derives from this fear and the subsequent state oppression it engenders. In doing so, it also happens to bolster the deranged rants by xenophobic Islamophobes who claim Islam poses a grave domestic threat to Americans.
In short, thanks in no small part to the irresponsible US media, the Garland shooting is overall “a win for ISIS and Islamophobes — and a loss for everyone else.”
Originally published at BenNorton.com on 5 May 2015.