News of the August 19, 2014, murder of journalist James Foley broke not in the media but instead on Twitter. News organizations faced the agonizing questions of how to report on the killing and what portions of the video to show. If a group or individual commits an act of violence, and then films it, how can traditional news organizations cover it without amplifying the propaganda message?
Journalists who flocked to Syria when the conflict first erupted there in 2011 did not struggle as often or as publicly with these issues. The war was covered by both veteran war correspondents and local citizen journalists and reports focused primarily on the violence and its tremendous toll on the civilian population.
By the fall of 2013, though, the reporting landscape in Syria had changed dramatically. Sixty-two journalists had been killed, and journalists were being kidnapped at a rate of one a week. Rebel groups that had once welcomed journalists were now targeting them.
For The Associated Press, which had regularly dispatched staff reporters and freelancers inside Syria, the rising level of risk forced a recalibration. “Going to war is nothing new for us,” said AP’s vice president and director of photography, Santiago Lyon. “The game changer for us was kidnapping for ransom.”
Unable to put its own reporters on the ground, the AP relied on “user-generated content,” mostly images provided by local activists and citizens or culled from social media. This approach created challenges in terms of ensuring veracity and countering bias, but, as Lyon noted, “Some insight is better than no insight.” The result was a delicate balance between non-professional citizen documentation and carefully vetted news stories.
The rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, shattered that balance. As ISIS grew to become the dominant rebel force inside Syria, the organization suppressed all independent sources of information in areas under its control while disseminating through its own channels gruesome videos showing executions of captives, civilians, and enemy forces. The videos were simultaneously intended to sow terror and recruit followers.
Lyon struggled with how to report on the ISIS videos even before the beheadings of freelance journalists Foley and Steven Sotloff. The videos often showed events that were clearly newsworthy, such as what ISIS claimed was the killing of more than 1,700 Shiite soldiers near Tikrit. Lyon decided to distribute screenshots and video clips to AP clients, omitting the most graphic details.
“They are putting this stuff out for [a] reason,” Lyon said. “The challenge is to show the reality without succumbing to the propaganda.”
Lyon of course understood that through the use of social media and the Internet, the ISIS videos would reach a mass audience, regardless of the careful deliberations made by AP or other news organizations. He recognized that the ISIS strategy is to bypass established news organizations and reach the intended audience directly. After all, ISIS fighters do not give interviews. They speak directly into the camera.
Despite the international attention and condemnation that the ISIS videos have drawn, the documentation of violence by those perpetrating the acts is not new. From the Nazis to the Khmer Rouge, bureaucratic states have systemically documented their own grave abuses, including genocide. In fact, many modern human rights mechanisms were built on the indignation evoked by these images. The Mubarak government in Egypt and the Assad government in Syria are among the many regimes to have documented their own torture sessions. Soldiers–including U.S. service personnel who filmed the torture and humiliation in Abu Ghraib–have historically chronicled their actions in the theater of war.
But none of these images was ever intended for public consumption, and journalists who disseminate them fulfilled their professional role by exposing hidden abuses. The dynamic presented by a new generation of what could be termed “perpetrator videos” is very different because there is no way to report on the videos without advancing, to some degree, the interests of those perpetrating the violence. The paradox is the same in the coverage of videos produced by ISIS in Syria, the Mexican drug cartels, or other non-state actors, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria. These organizations are not merely producing videos; they are acting as competing media outlets.
The Islamic State’s media strategy did not develop in a vacuum. It was adapted from those employed by other Islamist groups, notably Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), from which the Islamic State evolved.
Before the 9/11 terror attacks on New York City and Washington, Al-Qaeda had a fairly conventional approach to media relations. As many criminal, political, and insurgent groups had done historically, Al-Qaeda relied on the global media to convey its message to the world. Osama bin Laden himself hosted press conferences attended by Western journalists and gave exclusive interviews to CNN’s Peter Arnett and ABC News’ John Miller. He used the 1997 interview with Arnett to publicize his declaration of jihad against the United States. When asked about his future plans, bin Laden said, “You’ll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing.”
Journalists felt safe conducting these interviews because the militants needed the media to disseminate their message. Peter Bergen, who served as producer for the Arnett interview, noted, “Once you came into bin Laden’s inner circle, you never felt threatened.”
But Al-Qaeda’s relationship with the international media changed dramatically after the January 2002 kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. That beheading was not an orchestrated media event in the same way that the ISIS killings were. In fact, bin Laden reprimanded his operations chief, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who carried out the Pearl execution, for bringing “unnecessary attention on the network,” according to a report published by The Pearl Project, an investigation carried out by Georgetown University students.
In 2003, a Jordanian called Abu Musa’b al-Zarqawi, who had trained in the Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, assumed leadership of AQI. Though Zarqawi had pledged allegiance to bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader found him difficult to control. Zarqawi’s brutality earned a reprimand from Al-Qaeda’s central command, which argued, as in the Pearl execution, that excessive violence alienated both the local populace and potential international supporters.
Zarqawi was undeterred. Not only did the murders continue, but Zarqawi also became infamous for using the media to publicize his violence. He is believed to have personally carried out several videotaped beheadings, and his enduring contribution to the iconography of the jihadi snuff film was to dress his victims in orange jumpsuits, a reference to the uniforms worn by prisoners held in the U.S. detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The U.S. and British hostages later killed in the ISIS videos were forced to dress in the same manner.
Zarqawi set up a compartmentalized media operation in Iraq to disseminate these beheading videos, which J.M. Berger, editor of INTELWIRE.com and author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam,called “a gritty and grisly precursor to IS videos.” Before the days of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, this type of video was far less accessible and existed only on websites and message boards. The videos were also sent out of the country of origin to jihadi-run media production houses that turned them into mini-documentaries and then pushed them out to sympathetic websites. Bin Laden himself continued to rely upon video and audio messages sent to Al-Jazeera to reach a mass audience in the Arab world. Even as “jihad media” rose, Al-Qaeda’s reliance on traditional media to amplify its message meant that graphic violence was often contained.
The killing of al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006 accelerated a transition in AQI, which was absorbed into a coalition of insurgent groups dubbed the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). The civil conflict in neighboring Syria that erupted four years later provided the perfect opportunity for ISI to expand and recruit.
A former U.S. detainee and AQI mid-level commander, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would eventually emerge as the leader of this reconstituted force, which he renamed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Al-Shams), or ISIS. When Al-Qaeda once again complained of ISIS’ brutal tactics, fearing that they would have the same alienating effect that AQI had had in Iraq, al-Baghdadi challenged the Al-Qaeda-aligned Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and emerged as the dominant military force in the region.
In February 2014, Al-Qaeda denounced ISIS as too violent and denied any alliance with them. Bin Laden’s former deputy and successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who once recognized the powerful role of the media by saying, “We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” took strong exception to the ISIS videos. ISIS, Zawahiri said in a statement, “is not a branch of Al-Qaeda, has no links to it, and the group is not responsible for its acts.”
The ISIS leadership was unmoved and continued not only to engage in extraordinarily brutal acts but to document them. “They don’t dispute the characterization of them; in some ways, they embrace it,” Berger explained. “They are more concerned with promoting their own image than denying their actions.” The videos served strategic purposes by terrorizing enemies, creating a patina of invincibility, and aiding in the recruitment of foreign fighters. ISIS spokesman Abu Bakr al-Janabi told VICE, “Social media is good for building a network of connections and recruitment. Fighters talk about experiences in battle and encourage people to rise, and supporters defend and translate ISIS statements.”
Richard Barrett, a former counterterrorism chief at MI6, noted that the rapid advance of ISIS through northern Iraq and Syria allowed the militant group to outpace the comparatively slim media output of Al-Qaeda. “For the last 10 years or more, [Zawahiri] has been holed up in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area and hasn’t really done very much more than issue a few statements and videos,” he told Agence France-Presse. “Whereas Baghdadi has done an amazing amount–he has captured cities, he has mobilized huge amounts of people, he is killing ruthlessly throughout Iraq and Syria.”
ISIS has used social media strategy to promote its advances and to publicize its ruthlessness. It has effectively gamed Twitter’s hashtag and sharing metrics to distribute slickly produced videos to the widest possible audience, according to Profiling the Islamic State, a report from the Brookings Doha Center written by Charles Lister. ISIS has launched its own Android app; swarmed popular Twitter hashtags, including those used during the 2014 World Cup; and developed a decentralized network of social media activists around the world to promote its content.
ISIS’ dependence on social media is suggested by its reaction to an August 2014 effort to remove all Twitter accounts linked to the organization, an operation reportedly carried out by the U.S. government in collaboration with Twitter. What was once a thriving and vast network of official accounts with tens of thousands of followers was decimated.
The takedowns were devastating, acknowledged Abdulrahman al-Hamid, an ISIS supporter with 4,000 followers on Twitter. Al-Hamid tweeted on September 14, 2014: “We talked a lot about the deletion of accounts and the means of staying steadfast and to push people to continue if their accounts were deleted or suspended … We have to admit that this is a disaster and we have to be patient.”
The Islamic State is not the only contemporary group producing perpetrator videos. Other non-state actors, such as Boko Haram, have used YouTube broadcasts to communicate with the world. Criminal organizations in Mexico have engaged in this practice for nearly a decade.
“Mexico has been a pioneer in the use of YouTube and social media for publicizing terrorizing videos,” according to Latin America media expert and University of Texas at Austin professor Rosental Calmon Alves. “Mexican cartels were well ahead of ISIS in terms of using gruesome images.”
The cartels have demonstrated a willingness to use graphic imagery to send a message–often a darkly twisted one. The decapitated head of one online journalist killed in 2011 in the border city of Nuevo Laredo was posed wearing headphones and set next to a keyboard. Three years later, traffickers who captured a social media activist used her own Twitter feed to announce her murder. They posted this message on October 16, 2014:
# reynosafollow FRIENDS AND FAMILY, MY REAL NAME IS MARÍA DEL ROSARIO FUENTES RUBIO. I AM A PHYSICIAN. TODAY MY LIFE HAS COME TO AN END.
Two photos followed. One showed Rubio alive, staring into the camera. The second showed her dead on the floor from a gunshot wound to her face.
Social media provided the Mexican cartels with a means of disseminating visual records of the terrorizing practices that they already employed. These included leaving mutilated bodies in public places, hanging threatening “narco-banners” from bridges and buildings, and, in one notorious incident, rolling decapitated human heads across the floor of a discotheque. These acts served as public messages, both to the community and to rival cartels. Initially the gangs sought to manage media coverage of their activities by intimidating news outlets and reporters.
Later, as social media became integrated with the mainstream media, Mexican cartels, like ISIS, changed their strategy. No longer limited to the “town square,” the cartels used social media to reach a far wider audience. Many of the YouTube videos follow a standard format: A captured member from a rival cartel is forced to answer questions from an off-camera interrogator. A message or “confession” is extracted. Then the victim is executed, sometimes spectacularly. One of the videos featured decapitation by chainsaw.
Cartels began to put pressure on journalists to report more aggressively on these videos. Mexican news agencies faced the same questions that international outlets grappled with in covering the Islamic State videos, namely how to report the news without advancing cartel propaganda.
In 2011, most leading news organizations in Mexico agreed to collective guidelines for covering the trafficking organizations. The 10-point voluntary agreement, signed by 50 leading executives, called on the media to reject the violence of the drug cartels, cover it in a measured way, and refrain from portraying cartel leaders as “victims or heroes.” The agreement was hailed by government officials, but several leading news organizations refused to sign on, denouncing the pact as a form of self-censorship that would limit coverage of a vital news issue. Sensationalized coverage was reduced but hardly disappeared. As Alves noted, the videos provide “dramatic visual narratives that are hard for news organizations to resist.”
“We never signed on to this pact, because we have a different vision of journalism and how to cover aspects of the violence,” said Ismael Bojórquez, editor of the Culiacán, Sinaloa-based daily Ríodoce. “In Sinaloa, the war of the so-called narco-banners continued and we generally covered it. We don’t feel we were used by the drug traffickers. These are facts, and many of them have journalistic value. This is a moment that requires greater and more profound coverage of drug trafficking, not a retreat.”
The cartels soon found a new outlet, an immensely popular website called Blog de Narco. Castigating the mainstream for self-censorship, the website made a point of publishing everything without taking sides–but merely hosting the videos allowed the violent handiwork of the cartels to be seen by an increased audience.
In Nigeria, a similar cat-and-mouse game played out, with heavy-handed efforts by the authorities to restrict the dissemination of videos produced by Boko Haram putting journalists at greater risk. Ironically, Boko Haram gained international notoriety because of a successful Twitter hashtag campaign focused on the mass kidnapping of schoolgirls by the militant Islamist group. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign brought global attention to the longtime violence and unrest in northern Nigeria and brought Boko Haram into the spotlight. But at the end of 2014, 219 schoolgirls remained in their custody; this number includes all except those who managed to escape from the original group of 276. In late 2014, videos from Boko Haram mocked supposed government negotiations to free the girls and claimed that they had been married off to Islamist fighters.
Boko Haram supporters also used the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag to disseminate retaliatory messages by way of YouTube. In July 2014, AFP distributed a video showing Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, laughing and dancing while singing: “You’ve been going around saying, ‘Bring back our girls.'” He then adds, “Bring back our army.” ISIS released a similar mocking statement, altering Michelle Obama’s plea for the missing schoolgirls to read “Bring back our Humvee.”
Nigerian journalist Ahmad Sakida said that Boko Haram uses social media and videos distributed to individual journalists to convey its messages to the public. Sakida grew up in Maiduguri, in Borno state, a region he called “the vortex of Boko Haram activities.” Boko Haram leaders trusted Sakida with information, and for several years he served as the main media contact for the organization. He was regularly sent videos that documented the group’s actions and demands. Sakida posted the videos on his newspaper’s website and routinely shared them with competitors. The videos consistently made news, and they often contradicted government accounts of major bombings, such as the attack on United Nations headquarters in Abuja in 2011.
“The authorities want there to be a single narrative when it comes to the subject of terrorism,” Sakida pointed out. Eventually Nigerian journalists came under so much pressure from the authorities that they refused to report on Boko Haram’s activities. This, in turn, angered the militants who relied on the media to disseminate their message, and they began launching physical attacks on media outlets, such as the bombing of the two offices of ThisDay for which Boko Haram claimed responsibility. Sakida, who was forced to leave Nigeria because of government pressure, now lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates.
Ultimately Boko Haram’s lack of access to the Nigerian media did not stop the flow of information. They regularly upload their video messages directly to YouTube, where they rack up hundreds of thousands of views. Because of the pressure on Nigerian media, Sakida says, they now distribute their videos to the AFP. An October 2014 video first made public by AFP refutes claims that Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau had been killed and incorporates images of graphic violence, including the stoning of alleged adulterers, the amputation of an alleged thief’s hand, and the apparent beheading of a captured Nigerian air force pilot.
The graphic videos distributed by Mexican cartels and Boko Haram have been used in Mexico and Nigeria to undermine the governments’ claims that they are making strides in containing violence and protecting citizens. The videos are intended to highlight government powerlessness and incompetence in significant regions of each country. The more widely they are disseminated, the greater the impact. Therefore the militants have intensive interest in ensuring media coverage, whereas governments seek to suppress it. Journalists in both countries are caught in the middle.
“The advance of an army used to be marked by war drums. Now it’s marked by volleys of tweets,” Berger wrote in The Atlantic.
When the conflict first erupted in Syria, much of the international policy debate was focused on how to alleviate the suffering of civilians and confront the Assad regime’s record of relentless violence. Today the debate is about containing the Islamic State and preserving regional stability. This is because the nature of the conflict has changed, though it is also a function of how the conflict is perceived and the effectiveness of the ISIS messaging machine. As the AP’s Santiago Lyon noted, the original images emerging from Syria presented the perspective of victims. Today many of the images show the conflict from the perspective of the perpetrators of violence.
Although ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Mexican cartels have divergent strategies and goals, they are all non-state actors with highly evolved media systems that take full advantage of the rise of social media to advance their message. Though states have at times documented atrocities that they commit, their intended audience was the internal bureaucracy. In contrast, these non-state actors seek to use existing media structure to amplify the stage for their violent acts. In an evolving media landscape in which social media are becoming increasingly embedded in more traditional reporting, perpetrator videos have the opportunity to become the news. There is now near-instant access to atrocities taking place across the world.
The trend is not confined to organized militant groups. In this media ecosystem, the opportunity exists for a perpetrator of violence to not only publicize the act but to also use the publicity to amplify the terror.
“This issue has become more prevalent and more recognized because of social media,” said Madeleine Bair, Human Rights Channel curator at Witness, which trains activists to use video for human rights documentation, “but even back before YouTube we saw and wrote about a number of patterns of perpetrators’ recording and filming their own violence and using film as part of the abuse tactic.”
The trend, Bair believes, poses a unique challenge to those monitoring and documenting human rights violations, including journalists. “On one hand, the video is exposing and documenting the abuse, and, on the other hand, either perpetuating the abuse or furthering the endangerment of the victim,” she said.
The prevalence of perpetrator videos has raised grave ethical questions not only for journalists and media organizations but even the for the technology companies that host the content. In September 2014, the Guardian reported that a special British police squad now works directly with companies such as Twitter and YouTube “to block and delete about 1,100 pieces of gruesome content a week, which they say contravene U.K. terror laws.”
This has inevitably raised questions about free speech online and who controls the content on the Internet. Twitter has not divulged its practices around the takedowns but has publicly stated: “We review all reported accounts against our rules, which prohibit unlawful use and violent threats.”
For Alves, traditional media needs to balance the public interest with an awareness that the “information was created as a propaganda weapon.” Because the violent videos can never be totally suppressed, traditional media should embrace a different role, not as information gatekeepers but instead as “instances of verification,” providing context and perspective. “We are moving from a media-centric ecosystem to an I-centric ecosystem,” Alves explained. “The person is the medium.”
Mexican editor Ismael Bojórquez said that because of his experience in Sinaloa he advises international media not to shy away from showing graphic violence if it is essential to the story. He cautioned journalists to “never tie your hands or cover your mouth. This is fatal to journalism.”
The new realities require a fundamental shift in the way that journalists and news consumers relate to information, particularly information disseminated by violent and extreme forces. In the days when the media exercised an information monopoly, journalists could collectively choose to exclude certain voices. Today, that power is gone. Though social media and new information technologies enable everyone to speak, they do not require everyone else to listen.
Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Samantha Libby is CPJ’s advocacy officer. The section on Al-Qaeda’s media strategy is adapted from Simon’s book The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom (Columbia University Press, 2015).
EDITOR’S NOTE: The text has been updated to correct the spelling of Madeleine Bair’s name.