It’s 2017, and the world is shaken by another depraved mass murder, carried out and claimed in the name of ISIS. This time, it is children who are targeted. And just like the countless other times before, the mass media coverage seems stuck on a loop: the same few videos of victims panicking, anguished parents waiting for their children, and distraught mothers sobbing dominate our screens, playing again and again and again and again.
ISIS has a media strategy, and unfortunately, it is aimed exactly at generating this type of coverage. In fact, this media strategy is instinctively shared with other sensational mass killers — school shooters, white-supremacist terrorists, and others. They crave the distorted infamy they hope they will get after their death; they carefully prepare manifestos they hope will be published; they record videos they hope will be played on loop on cable TV.
Sometimes, the seeking of attention and “upping the ante” of victims is instinctive, as with young school shooters. Such mass murderers often meticulously collect clippings of media from past such incidents and obsessively follow the coverage. They “admire” and seek to emulate those who increased the numbers of victims. The Sandy Hook mass murder, carried out not by ISIS but by a disturbed young man in the US, seemed to do just that: target children, as a sick “one-upping” of sensational mass murder. In the case of ISIS, this stems not from instinct, but from a strategic understanding of the need for escalation to increase the coverage and horror.
And again and again, we are playing into their game, on their terms. Don’t get me wrong — I have the same visceral reaction as any other person. I understand the statistics: Traffic kills many more children each day. I understand that war and suffering are chronic problems for children around the world, sometimes with the help of our governments, like in Yemen or in Bahrain, and sometimes along with our inaction, like the current famine in South Sudan. But it’s absolutely human to be horrified by an act that happens at home, or at a place we recognize and embrace as ours, and to be hit hard with a video of panicked parents.
No amount of intellectual analysis of statistics is going to stop me from sobbing upon hearing that children at a concert were blown up by murderers so depraved and cowardly that we lack language to describe the depth of their depravity and cowardliness. That, however, is not an excuse for not understanding the fact that these acts are carried out exactly because this very human, very visceral reaction makes it hard for us to modulate our response, and to react in a way that works against the goals of the killers. Even if the visceral reaction is acceptable, it is no longer acceptable to have the mass media react to this again and again as if the killers were the shadow producers of a reprehensible reality show on TV.
One could argue that social media virality is part of the problem, but I have to say: People on social media have gotten better and better at this. I follow thousands of people across the political spectrum on various platforms for work, and most people have gotten wise to the game: This time around, practically the only pictures of injured or dead people from the Manchester attack I saw were attached to tweets and videos from outlets like BBC and CNN. The people are way ahead of mass media in understanding and countering this sick game of attention and horror. And it’s time for mass media to catch up.
ISIS is so attuned to media coverage that it’s produced snuff films — beheadings — at great expense, going as far as purchasing cranes and executing many takes from different angles to get the video with best shot at going viral, to be looped by news outlets. It’s never been more than a small group of cowardly men who took advantage of a power vacuum and decades of horrific policies in a beleaguered region, but these men have always been media and social media geniuses. They always had a disproportionate media budget in the millions of dollars even when they were short on weapons because media and propaganda are how they recruit, fundraise, and strive to elevate their losing game. (Make no mistake: They are losing; they have lost territory and they are loathed in the Muslim world where most of their victims reside.)
Their goal is clear: to place themselves as “the fight” that the lost and unmoored young men from Western countries should come and join for cheap thrills, enslaved young women, and an early death. It is not a coincidence that many ISIS videos resemble Call of Duty–type first-person-shooter military-recruiting-oriented games, just set to different music, with different enemies. Seeking to shape mass media coverage is just one more step in this strategy.
Indeed, if you look at the murderers — especially those from Europe — who join ISIS, a clear pattern arises. They are young men adrift, failing socially, personally and politically. They are often from broken homes, or homes with domestic violence. They are often second-generation immigrants, belonging neither to their parents’ home country, nor fully to their new one. Most of them are not religious to begin with; in fact, many do jail time for petty crimes like selling pot, small-time theft, and drunken misbehavior. Sometimes, they are put in prison and placed with hardcore jihadis — proving what almost all counselors of addiction or misbehavior know: placing small-time offenders with hardcore malefactors leads to recruitment and escalation among the more naive.
For the lost petty criminals in Europe, that’s the lure of ISIS: to channel their frustration and sociopathy into a cause larger than themselves, to get the fame and recognition they seek, however distorted, and to finally have a chance to give that in-your-face middle finger to society, they hope, as a looping video on BBC or CNN or MSNBC or Fox, or as a viral video on social media. Indeed, that fits with current ISIS strategy: It doesn’t necessarily recruit or train as much as “inspire” and claim. Who knows what exact relationship this particular murderer had with ISIS as an organization (versus ISIS as a name) and excuse, a cause for which to carry out murder, and to seek that infamy.
We don’t have to do this. We can give such news incidents the coverage they deserve, somber and proportional, while respecting and embracing the victims. We have examples of such media restraint: In the ’80s, the world went through suicide clusters that spread via mass media. In the aftermath, the CDC developed sensible guidelines for media coverage of especially young suicides: Don’t romanticize it; don’t say they are now in a better place; emphasize that help is available and describe how; do not describe the method of suicide (practical ideation increases the odds of re-creation); do not create overexposure. Media followed these sensible guidelines, and indeed dampened the suicide contagion.
We can and should do this for terrorism and mass shootings. The guidelines won’t be the same, but the outlines are clear. Don’t go into loop mode. Mention names of killers sparingly. Avoid their photos, manifestos, and coverage they left behind for us except in brief mentions. Don’t overreact. Report news when there is news. Don’t retraumatize victims.
Unfortunately, the incentives in mass media in the era of cable news is to find something — anything — to fill the round-the-clock coverage that such incidents generate. There are, however, not enough newsworthy things to say round-the-clock about such incidents that cannot be said in a few minutes: the horror, the response, the focus on solidarity with the victims, and the global condemnation of the cowardly murderers.
As audience members, we may even feel drawn to watching those horrific videos on loop: It is undoubtedly every parent’s nightmare, and you don’t have to be a parent to be feel this deep in your soul. However, by feeding this vicious cycle, in which the short-term media incentives and misjudgment of news media are aligned with the propaganda needs of the terrorists, we are helping inspire the next copycat, the next young man with the distorted, twisted desire for infamy and death (including his own) and mass murder.
While the individual killers may be losers — Donald Trump called them that, and he is right; as a man who became president partly by understanding how to monopolize and attract attention, he perhaps instinctively understands the need to deny them that — ISIS is pursuing a deliberate strategy, one aimed to horrify the public so much that we go along with a set of irrational policies, such as massive bombings of areas where they also hold many civilians hostage.
When Western lives are at stake, we would understand how wrong it would be to kill thousands of hostages to also kill a few men who are already seeking death in their twisted ideology, but we don’t necessarily understand this when the victims are civilians in Raqqa, the so-called capital of the tiny amount of land ISIS holds, but where about 100,000 people — who have been victimized most by ISIS — are held captive. To be clear: This is a thorny problem, but one that requires patience, resources, strategic thinking, smart analysis, and action. I don’t advocate ignoring victims because of their citizenship status, but a visceral lashing-out that is aimed to produce counterprogramming on mass media (“big bombs!” “flash-bang of grainy-green video!” “adoring pundits who find big bombs very presidential!”) is not the answer.
There is a better way: Let’s kick off the murderers from the producer seat. Let’s deprive them of our attention on their terms. Let’s embrace the victims, and their families, across the globe, not just here but also over there. Don’t splash the names and faces of the killers on TV; don’t repeat their manifestos on loop. Each death is horrible, but that isn’t a reason to exaggerate the power or the reach of the killers. Terrorism is mass murder with a media strategy; it’s long past time to disrupt it.
Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina and contributing writer at the New York Times.